Posts Tagged ‘Anyway Records’

Jenny Mae Leffel 1968-2017

September 4, 2017

Jenny Mae (Leffel) 1968-2017.

“Why are you so angry?” She asked me that, repeatedly over and over through the years. Perhaps it was some of the unease that grew up around me when I was near her, as the jungle of her life, crowded everything out, grew wild around her and eventually choking the life out of her, but I would challenge her on this statement, in the end though—there was no agreement. Perhaps the anger came from frustration, of witnessing a slow motion house fire, a home being torched one item at a time. The flurry of flames to one book, one shoe, one chair at time, small embers that glowed red, then ashen white-perhaps that was what upset me so, the bit-by-bit destruction of a life by slow degree. The elephant in the room was not so much an elephant but it was the room itself, a sense of sadness as well as a flickering modicum of hope that offset the creepy feeling that something was not going to end well. Death is that ending, and for most this great unknown is the not-ending-well that pervades everything a person does, watching a child from a distance, death is unspoken the silent care a parent puts in others-the trust that is given to others who are caring for their child.

She didn’t want to talk about it, the drinking, the poverty, the violence she endured—by the ones who were in her life to protect her, men, neighbors and others who in the end betrayed the trust by fists, insults and of forcing themselves upon her. These were the upspoken experiences that drove her, the memories that tended to visit her when she was alone, at times with some of the voices in her head—there was no wonder that she gravitated towards anyone, no matter how unsafe to make her feel not-so-alone. Sometimes the demons in front of us are safer than the ones in our minds.

She cackled when she laughed, a laugh that could lift a room up and transport it elsewhere, to a place of bliss with just one line, one comment that dove out of her mouth as if it were propelled by jet fuel. Soft eruptions that would murmur from her lips, asides that would leave tears of laughter cascading down anyone within earshot. For myself and a few others, we played off one another, a small circle of suffering outsiders who kept our sanity by laughter, the pushing of the envelope and also, of course music which poured out of her like million different cloudbursts dotting a never ending sky.

 

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A sensitivity that was attuned to the pain around her, she comforted me, she held my head when I wept as a child of 19, when the world broke apart within me, she would wipe my tears and sing to me, just her voice and her hands upon my cheek. “Edelwiess”, “Greensleeves” and “Grow Old Along with Me”, she could trill her voice like a 1930’s Hollywood singer or turn it into a broken Billie Holiday, depending on what she felt was needed. Later, when she started writing her own music, she would pull lines from my notebooks of poetry to fit her melodies, she would sing songs to others from lines that were written for her. Turning our world inside out, and later, some of these maybe have been written for my current lover—she would say, “I just think you are brilliant” to me as I quickly changed the subject because in the end-I knew the answer, that I was as broken as she was.

Over the years the relationship changed, where once she comforted me, I became the caretaker, trying to save a sinking boat in the middle of the Pacific, all the kings men, horses, gold or prayers would not be enough to bale the water out of the crumbling floorboards of her boat. Creaky calls in the middle of the night, loaning her money that she would try in vain to pay back but at times, of course she never could. It’s hard pressed to survive on $700 a month regardless of how well a person budgets. At one point, she plead to me to help change a system that is so selfish and cruel it smashes the poor underneath it with the glee and quiet approval of an upper crust that is exactly that, crust. She is the main reason I work with the poor, the addicted, the mentally ill and how a sense of purpose to challenge the levers of power to quit stomping on the dis-enfranchised.

Sometimes it’s the mudane that sticks in the mind, a memory of the ordinary, maybe sharing a cup of coffee or a song that came on the radio while the windows were down; laughing and passing a bottle between seats as the Cars sang about a cheating with their best friend’s girl. They are cobbled together, on after another, to be mixed and mashed up as one moment flows into the next, soon a massive bleeding blur of colors in the mind’s eye—none exact, just an impression. One day we were walking across a barren field just across the street from her house, we had to cross the Old National Road, a staggeringly long strip of the pre-interstate highway system which was intended to connect Atlantic City, New Jersey to San Francisco but ended up petering out in the middle of Utah soon to be replaced by the faster US interstate system and Interstate 70 which could also be seen from Jenny’s front porch. Along the way, the rise and fall of American exceptionalism is pockmarked along this strip of history, old motels that are now hollowed out, small burgs that once catered to traveling salesmen, truckers and families moving west are now past dead, rotting in the shadows of Wal-Marts, box-stores and a drug epidemic that may just kill off the last vestiges of the great American Dream. It was not quite spring, those few weeks when winter still lay hard in the soil but with some afternoon days moistening the ground to stick at the bottom of one’s shoes. Senior year was hurtling towards and end, I had already had enough credits to graduate and only wanted to spend time with Jenny, read and listen to records. Dj’ing at the local college radio station was akin to opening up a box of 64 Crayola crayons after only having a number 2 lead pencil to color with, the world appeared as long and fantastical as route 40. Standing in her front yard it was hard to believe that if one went east, the vast Atlantic Ocean would be able to swallow this provincial and suffocating life while going west would lead to more adventures. The trees were still bare, skinny black and brown arms reaching skyward waiting for the sun to provide their green clothing, they swayed at the top, the wind making the tops dance in a slow motion action. I grabbed her hand, we had not an idea of where we would walk to, soon the field would end and after a small thatch of woods the starkness of I-70 would be an unpassable barricade. It didn’t matter, she laughed and held my tight, pulling herself against my shoulder, and looked up at me. I was turning into a man, by slow motion, one step, and one day at time. She was going to Ohio State, she swore to her grandfather that she would be in the Ohio State Marching Band, she would major in Spanish so she could travel and challenge the world, and of course she would leave her hometown which she knew in her mind could never contain her. Pockets of doubt rose up in me, wanting to attend Ohio University because Athens was the only place that felt like home, with the idea that I would become a journalist or writer, I realized that in the end I wanted to be where she was no matter the town. The dry cornstalks cracked against our feet, making a yellow rickety carpet all the way to the trees. When we arrived at the end of the field, the trees seemed to huddle together, if they could join branches, they would clasp themselves together and dance, bending themselves up and howling in whatever manner a tree can. Winding between the small forest was a creek that we had never known existed, hidden to the rest of world, she climbed down the muddy banks, “come on Bela” she coaxed me, in a matter of moments the sound of skipping stones splashed against the water until our fingers grew cold. “Let’s go back, I’m cold” she said and we trudged our way back across the field towards that small ranch house on the side of route 40.

https://pitchfork.com/news/singer-songwriter-jenny-mae-dead-at-49/

At one time, I thought I could not believe I could breathe without her, later I helped her breath and now there is no breath at all. I will miss you in everything I do Jenny. Jesus Christ were you brilliant.

 

 

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Christmas Story 2016 (WPRB)

December 26, 2016

Jon Solomon, who not only runs the excellent Comedy Minus One record label but also has had a very long running radio show on WPRB out of Princeton, New Jersey. Every year, Jon hosts a 24 Christmas Music Marathon (Hanukkah as well), and he has asked me to submit for the past few years, which is always an honor so, a big thanks to Jon (http://www.comedyminusone.com/bands/ & http://keepingscoreathome.com/). Here is this year’s submission, he usually posts completed shows in a few weeks.

Merry Christmas:

 

Christmas.

Ohio is either filled with sunshine that feeds the summertime humidity like gasoline on a backyard fire pit, or it is a mass of solid cinder block gray. The gray comes in suddenly, overnight usually arriving on November third or so, and departing as the first tulips pop up out of the frozen soil, in the middle there is football, lots of football, snowed in days, ice storms (both inside and outside of family dwellings) and of course Christmas which feels like the last port of call on a ten thousand mile journey. It arrives in Technicolor, with the hidden hope that it may somehow stave off the impending gloom of the coming months. Months that when they arrive get stuck like glue on the bottom of every Ohioans soul, but for a brief flicker of days, Christmas is the salve that stems the desolation so many mid-westerns feel crawling over their very essence.

We never had money, neither with my mother or later when I lived with my father, as we listened to $1.99 Christmas collections from Woolworths and Gold Circle, sung by choirs that I’m pretty sure were non-existent prior to the recording of the record. Names like, The Mercy Tabernacle of Los Angeles or the Austrian Choir and Bells, we didn’t care as long as the songs sounded glorious as they bounced off the red and silver glare of bulbs, stringy shiny Christmas tree iceless and garland the was carefully wrapped around the freshly cut tree. The presents were usually sparse, and we all knew at least a couple of them would hold socks, underwear and a new shirt. The most basic of clothing that was required wearing, would pass for a genuine present, and we would open with a falling, “ahhhh…hhh” a sliver of a smile and thank our mother.

Being from a broken (into-pieces) home, we celebrated Christmas at both parents and both sets of grandparents which meant a lot of small items, clumsy grandparents trying to buy presents for children who were of a much different time period than they were. My grandfather Austin fought in World War II, a barrel chested man who tended to be on the quiet side, he was gentle and he and Grandma Rosemary always had a tree, easy listening music playing Christmas favorites, a splendid traditional tree drenched in silver cascading artificial icicles with presents pushed under the tree. And with the sweet smell of Jim Beam with a splash of water and Winston cigarette smoke dug deep into the thick wooly carpet, it was more like a Christmas on the variety shows that were so prominent in the early 1970’s. My other grandmother, Isabel would build a small fortress of ornaments, nativity scenes and a pool of presents that stretched across the living room as if the tree had been giving birth to presents since Thanksgiving weekend.

My last Christmas before sobriety was a wreck, my wife and I were separated not just due to her job in Gainesville, Florida but by the unspoken voice of alcohol whose late night tenor howled in my ears. The Christmas Eve, I spent bouncing around the short north of Columbus, prancing, dancing and finally stumbling to the very last vestiges of dive bars in the Short North area of Columbus. Finally, being hounded out of the final one for using the Lord’s name in vain, as I clumsily held onto someone I shouldn’t have been holding onto. I awoke, alone, in my bed, realizing that somehow I’d have to drive two hours to my mother’s to pretend as if I gave a fuck.

As a parent, it is difficult to make your own rituals, such as apple picking which we did for nearly six years before the orchard we went to closed up the trees and left for better pastures. Or how to purchase gifts, with my sense of guilt over a childhood that seemed lacking in material goods (although rich in memories and love), I tend to overbuy. With books, clothes and one big item while my wife, she of Dutch blood insists on one or two items, “we never got more than one in the Netherlands” she states as if that will repulse my inner impulses to get the kids whatever they want. We balance both Sinter Klaus, the Dutch version of Santa who lives in Spain, arrives on a wooden boat nearly a month before December 5th (the day the children receive gifts) with a very un-PC bounty of helpers despairingly called “Black Peets”. But, the Dutch are practical and understand the power of magic in a child’s life, the whole country buys into the myth of Sinker Klaus with an almost daily television program titled, Sinterklassjournall, a film crew follows Sinter with some hapless Peets (who this year were a variety of colors) almost disrupt the entire holiday. Every year. The kids love it, and it cemented their belief in Sinter, because “hey, if it’s on television it’s real”. Our daughter, Saskia aged 11, quit believing when she was seven while Bruno, aged 8, still believes wholeheartedly in Sinter but quit believing in Santa last year. Do you believe in Sinter Bruno? “Of course!” How about Santa? “Daaaad, don’t be silly.” As this dark year comes to a close I believe this will be our last year of Holiday innocence.

We cut down a tree every year, and on the tree farm we go to they have pictures of our family over the years, with crooked grins, bulky winter caps and gloves, the children holding on to powdered hot chocolate we are quite literally frozen in time. A few years ago, we cut a mid-sized tree down and I hoisted in on my shoulder, trudging through the crunchy snow to the tractor that would carry us back to the barn. When we got home, I again lifted the tree up on my shoulder and gently placed it in the same corner where the tree sits every year. A week later, while attending classes in Cleveland, a giant rash down my neck, arms and stomach made the day long courses almost unbearable. The tree still had the dried vines of poison ivy wrapped around its stalk. Another short lived tradition. As I get older, climbing into my late forties, I want the magic that swells through the songs, the lips and the smiles of my community. To gaze up at the stars and to think, just for a few moments that, yes, there were once miracles even if they just rested on the minds and tongues of a little boy wondering how a little boy was born two thousand years ago changed the world. I see the spell of disbelief and curiosity in my children, I want to freeze that feeling they have, to be able to swallow it myself and ingest in the holiday of miracles. Maybe, this year.

Jerry and Jenny: Holding

October 2, 2016

Desperation filled the room like a bomb, overhead lights flickered on, stuttering for a moment as if they were rubbing their florescent eyes and then illuminating the quiet loneliness with a shimmering pale glow. Women eyed nervous men, whose boldness was powered by Pabst Blue Ribbon, Jack Daniels and Rolling Rock, the upper hand danced upon arched eye-brows and the hesitation of whatever the next moments would unfurl, the anticipation danced as if on the tips of floating curtains through the window of minor death that comes from walking home alone. For many in the bar, home was filled with roommates who crowded spaces with loud voices, broken cigarettes they balanced on moist lips as words hurried out of manic-y mouths, all competing for a chance to share their bed, to keep the emptiness away, in this context the bar was more home than the cramped and messy student housing was. Dating was difficult when trying to be heard over a room-mate’s stereo, television or the constant interruptions of political or personal discourse. The bar was easier, with a wiggle into the wooden booth two people could wall off the world around them, the invisible barriers that shot up from the dark stained brown of the back of the booth shot to the ceiling, with the wooden table making the perfect meeting point for early forming crushes. Beneath the table, legs and feet could get intertwined sending an immediate message that one may not muster the courage to voice out loud.

The floor was ruddy, with cigarette butts flicked away in detached mannerisms, as if the calm they just supplied for an anxious fellow had never existed. The black and brown bits of tobacco soaked up spilled beer and dashed late night dreams like a sponge of rejection. The music blared from the speakers as bartenders, tired from a night of mixing cocktails, pouring doubles and opening endless bottles of beer shouted above the panicked din, “Last call!! This is your last fucking call! Turn them in, it’s time to get the hell out of here!!!” Just twenty minutes ago these bartenders were the masters of wisdom, able to parse small bricks of knowledge as they slid a drink across the counter or keeping fainter hopes alive with a wink and the sashaying of hips. The exposed brick walls wore a fine film of cigarette phlegm that grew in insignificant degrees as ladies and men stuffed inward anxiety by deeply inhaling from thousands, if not millions of these thin paper-y tubes of mental health supplicants, exhaling with a passion, the smoke leaving their bodies after digging deep inside their nervous souls it would settle on the walls, ceiling and light fixtures. Turning everything a bit yellow, as if the innards of the bar were in fact an alcoholic slowly beating his liver to death, one icy beverage at a time.

Outside, the autumn wind flew down from the black sky, making the leaves dance their dances of death before being torn from chilly almost naked branches, the wind gathered its strength to bring in rushes of cold air near the top of the sky and although we were huddled inside, amidst the noise of guitars and rickety cymbals, the clanking of bottles and deep sighs of anticipation we could just feel the cold outside, it was understood that when we exited the building, pulling ourselves in, cuddling ourselves or grabbing a hold of another nervous hand the chill would remind each one of us of how the fragility of our lives were.

Her bedroom was cluttered, small piles of clothes dotted the floor like musty landmines, an unmade mattress stacked upon a pitiful box-spring mattress was shoved against the wall. The walls were covered in art, placed in uneven rows as if a bird had decided to decorate the room, here was a painting of a nude woman and ten inches to the left, and five inches lower hung a poster of a shirtless Iggy Pop, his pubic hair tempting the viewer as if someone could mount Iggy right there on the wall. On another wall were a line of post-it notes, each one marked by day-glow ink that listed a person and date, no other explanation. The far window was covered with a wooly blanket, thinned in the middle by one to many bodies digging in deep with the passion that only the mid-twenties could bring, the splotch of meager fabric was almost as see-through as a bowl of broth. Books were stacked against the make-shift bed, Anis Nin, Kafka, Betty Friedman, Ken Kesey and hardcover copy of Susan Faludi’s “Backlash” informed any visitor that the woman who slept here was smart, concise, funny and suffered no fools. Inviting a person to her bed was not something that was given lightly.

We were drunk, leaning against one another as we entered the room, she grabbed my elbow with one hand, the other in the small of my back, pulling my shirt up. Skin on skin and the ceiling twirled as if it were made up of helicopter blades. The night started early, at least for me with the 75-mile drive from Columbus to Athens fueled by a six pack of Natural Light before arriving at the Union Bar and Grill at nine p.m. There was no plan that evening, stopping at my brother’s and finding his house empty except for a pack of dogs that climbed over one another while trying in vain to run out the front door. No lock was needed and I barked at them louder than they barked at me, “Get back! Get Back, it’s just me”, squirming some of them were so large my knees almost buckled, “God-damnit, get the fuck back!” Putting a brown shopping bag with a change of clothes and one of Robert Caro’s books on Lynden Johnson (as if I would get any reading accomplished), in my brother’s room and I drove back uptown.

That night as former art students plugged in black amplifiers, sat behind a drum kit whose kick drum had a painting of a laughing clownish man whose crooked eyes followed the audience as the thump-ba-thump pulsated across the floor, we smiled at one another while melodic feedback brought us closer than any word could ever do. The music extinguished the anxiety the bubbled up between us, the past or future didn’t matter while heads bobbed back and forth, nobody had to speak and if they did nobody could hear anyway, in fact nothing could be said while the music blasted all internal fears like a coal mining company blowing the top off a mountain. Her black hair rolled down past her eyes, small languid curls the bent and bounced while light glinted from the various wisps that fell under her quilted hat, she smiled broadly, displaying perfect white teeth that fell into order almost in a regimented fashion. During the course of the next fifty minutes we stood closer and closer, and by the end of the last three songs our legs were in unison, and as the last notes rang in humming ears she grabbed my hand.

One of the last things Jenny had said to me as I walked out the two story house on Norwich was “go ahead and leave, your life is going to be miserable and you’ll never get laid again besides you suck in bed.” She continued yelling through the screen door and the large black walnut tree casted even darker shadows that then cloud filled night was already doing, as I trudged across the lawn, these small pockets of inky blackness would swallow me whole for an instant, a reverse strob-light as I bounded away from the insults. A part of me yearned to turn around, as the words nicked the insides of me like a small pen-knife, that section of my being wholeheartedly believed her, that in the end being defective was what I was in essence while another part did not believe her and continuing the way we existed was a life that was doomed to eventual death by my own hand. Alcohol had risen around our ankles and although I was only twenty-two, life had become quicksand, the vomit looking quicksand found in nineteen-sixties B-Movies and there wasn’t much left to do except exist with no hope for happiness. It was October just a few years prior to the experience described at the beginning of this entry, the ground was muddy, there was very little that would grow on the slight slope of the front lawn. Wet leaves had already started rotting into the soil, a slight breeze swept from the west with a tablet of cold attached just to make sure that a person felt small against Mother Nature. Against the backdrop of the stone church that bordered the yard, I glanced up, a few small tears trickled down my face, feeling nothing except for the hope for a God that I wasn’t really sure about I said a prayer and climbed into the car. I would spend that first night in Athens, the hour and a half drive providing thoughtful calmness and solidifying, what was perhaps, up to that point in my 22 years, the most terrifying decision I had ever made. It felt as if my entire life was one melodramatic scene from a shitty movie when all that was wanted was a slap-stick comedy.

A small, damp and disorganized apartment in the basement of the James’s house, they were lifelong family friends, the eldest child, Lisa was my sister’s best friend in high school. While the middle son Ian was a tall blond haired, intellectual rabble-rouser bonded with Zoltan, both of them made well-worn paths in plenty of the townie bars. The apartment had a side entrance, from a brick constructed alley that climbed up from State Street to the toppermost street in the county. In the winter one could easily slip near the top of the hill and slide straight into State street in a whoosh. The apartment was small, hardly an apartment at all, a bedroom, a hallway and the stairs led up into the kitchen, itself cramped with dishes, grocery bags and a coffee pot that had almost fossilized bits of burned coffee grounds molded into its base. Arriving in the middle of the evening, sitting on the edge of the bed holding a Rolling Rock, it had seemed that the future was but a panic attack away.

I stayed in Athens for the weekend, keeping to myself as I nursed the broken bits of ego and raw self-esteem, and drove back to work at Used Kids early Monday morning. The start of a pin-ball styled existence that would ricochet my life from bed to bed, bar to bar and of course, record to record had, unbeknownst to me, commenced and would continue for the next decade. As my Monday evening shift ended at Used Kids ended, the thought of driving to Athens and sleeping in the musty, sad apartment, itself a veritable crumpled brown paper bag of a room, almost staggered me. I called my friend Joe Moore, whom I had met while living in the Ohio State dorms, Joe and his friend Frank Peters had won my friendship by plastering their dorm room walls with posters of the Rolling Stones, Husker Du and the Replacements. “Joe, what are you up to?” Without flinching, “you need a place to stay tonight? I heard about you and Jenny.” That night after a few drinks, and listening to records, lying next to a woman with long red hair in the back bedroom, telling her stories of a broken heart and how it had been laid-way by the jabs of Jenny.

Her bed was cramped, almost glued to the wall as the room pressed in upon us, it could have been a large closet instead of a bedroom. Joe had mentioned to me earlier in the year that he had been sleeping with her for a while, but now, the hallway between their rooms might as well been the Atlantic. Her hair lay around her head in bunches, we were like eighth graders, talking to the ceiling as we talked to each other, unloading the worst experiences of our lives while never looking at one another. After a while, the words lost all fuel and the room was filled with separate breaths trying to play catch up with the other. A soft nervous panic rose from the middle of my bones, cut through soft skin and hovered just centimeters from my body, it was soon punctured as she placed her left hand on my thigh. And soon, we rolled to each other, sharing soft kisses while the hands roamed and fumbled and finally I pulled away. The thought of Joe sleeping in the other room, the pain of Jenny and finally, and most loudly the doubt that this was a real thing. “I can’t do this, can we just sleep?” “yes, if that’s what you want,” she murmured, gripping my uncertain hand.

Larry’s was emptying out, as wounded egos shuffled out with a six-pack in hand, the lights flickered on and some of us, with the hope that glistens like a bronze bell during the noonday sun inside of us giggled into the street. Bouncing with drunken giddiness I held her elbow as she cupped her hand into mine, my other hand holding fast to the cardboard handle that held the beer that would take us deeper into the night like a beacon sitting in a far off hill. She laughed freely, and smiled against my shoulder, we had not yet kissed but at this point it was a formality. Sauntering up High Street as a fistful of cars passed slowly by, on the lookout for the police we soon headed to Pearl Alley as it provided more privacy amongst its bits of broken glass, crumpled up fast food bags and the smell of alcohol and piss. Roughly was block down, we stopped as she backed me into the cold brick of a building long torn down, and kissed me full on the lips, flitting herself into my mouth she held me with eyes wide open and felt me against her. Cheeks flushed, kissing while street light hummed above us we walked some more, cutting up to another, more residential street, the large maple and oak trees swayed above us, mimicking my drunken gait, the soft shadows of the leaves making small splashes of darkness against our bodies as if nature had constructed an organic strobe light to frame our slow dance of loneliness deferred. In her bed, we kissed and giggled some more, as we lay naked in her bed, candles stacked like small wax trees around her windowsill, her dresser and her floor. “I need to tell you something before we do this, ok?” lifting her head as she looked me in the eye. Her smile disappeared in that moment, “what? Is something wrong?” I whispered, waiting for the other shoe not to just drop but splinter like a raindrop on hot cement. “I’ve been sleeping with Jerry on and off for about six months.” Bubble thought burst in my head. “I don’t care; I won’t tell him if you won’t.” leaning back into the her bed. “I won’t” she smiled as we grew closer. That night, it wasn’t guilt that closed the evening as if it were made of soft doors shutting it was too much beer and whisky as after some struggles we decided to sleep as birds yawned their early morning songs.

Saskia takes her time dressing every morning, and after we go to the gym together she says,

“dad, wait for me I will be out in 20 minutes. I have to get ready.”

“Honey, no you don’t we just worked out for an hour and your mother is waiting. Hurry up” I sigh annoyingly.

“I just have to put on my makeup.”

“Nobody puts on make up after leaving the gym, not even Taylor Swift” looking for someone she can relate to.

“Ok, give me five minutes” she shouts from across the lobby of the gym.

She is eleven, experimenting with her looks, her discovery of fashion and now, with sparkling whispers she tells her mother of boys and happenings at middle school that her father, no doubt could ever relate to. Offsetting everything with humor, I make her laugh, she tosses the sarcasm back at me, and shakes her head. “Dad, you are not cool, you have no idea.” She wears her mother’s clothes, and balances her growing tall body on skinny shoes, as I stand in the kitchen nursing another cup of black coffee, hoping that while she walks into adolescence and young adulthood she is spared the self-doubt and ache of solitude that has hung around her father as an invisible cape since the third grade. “Dad, seriously you don’t understand what I’m even talking about as she dances clumsily on high heel shoes while holding her phone to her ear. I suppose not.

Jerry and Jenny: Protection

August 4, 2016

School was a drag, from the earliest years of kindergarten to last frayed edges of my psyche as my high school years petered to a shambling halt, all the while my innards groaned every morning I drove the 1978 Corolla to the school. It was as if I had to nail myself upon a cross made of bricks, racism and corn every morning, my stomach swaying as I bounded over the soft rolling hills, past epic farms of corn and soybeans. Just like a John Cougar Mellencamp record. The first awakening to the unfairness of childhood, stabbed my brain as if I were shrouded in an invisible cloak that covered all the innocence of a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy of five. Standing outside Ms. K’s doorway as children ran to waiting yellow school buses, metal tubes of laughter, nausea and the sweet pungent scent of childhood who would roll through the nearby neighborhoods, dropping children off as if they were bits of fleshy, noisy mail, I turned slowly when Ralph Scarmack called my name. I knew him, sort of anyway, as much as a kindergartener could know another little kid, his father worked with my father, this much I knew. “Maybe we can be friends?” I thought, as I smiled at him. As my brother stayed in school all day, he was a first grader, I spent the afternoons waiting for him to walk down Sunnyside Drive. I’d sit on the porch, or set up various bulky green Army men under the porch and pretend the Daddy-Long Legs would attack them, perhaps I’d ride my Big-Wheel down to the corner and spy out for him. Big black plastic wheels flicking bits of gravel behind me, I was a blur tearing up the sidewalk.

“Hi Ralph” I looked at him with the hope that I had a new friend. Eyeing me up and down, he snarled, “I’m going to kick you in the shins!” Looking down, I noticed he wore brown socks underneath brown leather shoes, complete with brown stiff laces. Looking back up, I tilted my head, much like a puppy and wondered what he just said. Biting his bottom lip, he raised his foot backwards and with all his little-boy force struck my right shin as hard as he could. Collapsing on the sidewalk, he stood over me, “don’t tell anybody or I’ll do it again tomorrow!” Water filled my eyes, while a lump the size of a loaf of bread rose in my throat, choking on shame and confusion, I was not going to cry. I turned heel and limped away, trying hard not to but he had managed to peel away a small layer skin on the bottom of my leg, small creases of blood dripped down my leg. Maplewood Avenue had never appeared so long, the cut hurt to the touch and I soon made it home. Crawling under the porch, I stacked the Army men in rows, they would wage battle against the ants and other insects. The feeling of being an outsider was literally hammered into me that fall day.

Every year, autumn would slump from childhood summers like a slow moving fog, rising around skinny ankles, winding its promise of long hot school days, sweating while August afternoons mocked us through thick glass windows, and chalk-scented air soon it would choke the fun out of our lives. From the dreamland of summer afternoons, staying up watching Double-Chiller theater, to the drudgery of turning yellowed paper, with artwork from the 1950’s still in our textbooks, it all seemed desperate. Even to an elementary school child. School was like a carousal, attending over six schools by the time fourth grade arrived, I would stand in line while waiting for another multi-colored wooden horse to arrive. Picking me up and taking me on the same old trip. By the time fourth grade arrived, I was in a state of motion sickness when it came to school.

Shy at a young age, but warming up when feeling comfortable, the husk that had accumulated from bracing new schools, new friends and the awkwardness of saying my name, and having to repeat it over and over to disbelieving little kids was burnished by these successive years of change. But when the trust came, I would open from the inside, folding out in a tumble of words that could cause other to be startled into dizziness. Bruno, is the same, and I can see in him the trepidation of my past. Bruno, makes things, big things, out of discarded wood, string, and found objects in our garage. His favorite store is Lowe’s and he bounds up and down the aisles as if he were in an amusement park. June would seduce slowly, with the promise of unending days filled with imagination brought to life, fort-making, back-yard cookouts and late night episodes of kick-the-can and then July would clutch and hold onto childhood like a metal vise, everything was frozen, days spilling into nights the summer would never end, and finally August thumped into consciousness with humid footprints reminding us that school was ticking ever closer. As the sweat dripped like melting ice-popsicles down our backs, August brought along dread that soon, so very soon, afternoons would be spent in steamy classrooms while swaying trees and bleating insects mocked the children through open windows.

A sense of distrust for school manifested itself in me from an early age, from Mrs. Amamuil in first grade who admonished me in front of my new classroom for wetting the floor, I went home in tears, never trusting this older hardened woman who was there to bring out the splendor of discovery in children, but instead struck with an invisible shaming stick to the little ones in her charge. And next, just two years later, a brunette teacher, with her hair pulled tight in a careful bun, long skirts and red-lollipop lipstick who stated to the only black kid in our class (in Newport News, Virginia), “Why can’t you just read Otis, what are you? Stupid?” This was my first experience in racism, as she spoke a portion of my gut tightened, as a child knows inherently when something is amiss and while I could not put my finger on it, I realized what she did was so very, very wrong. Later, in fifth grade, with an already strong sense of right and wrong, the spring sunshine was blanketing the baseball field of East Elementary school. The gym teacher, Mr. Swartz was a stereotypical gym teacher, tight thigh length athletic shorts worn at all times, black baseball cap, whistle dangling from a black cord that reached his tight polo shirt and spotless tennis shoes. He coulda been cast for a Hollywood movie, an intense man, prone to barking out instructions as if all the children were standing 40 yards away and not the five feet from him as we were, and at times he could splice in small insults to players that were not doing well, “Jimbo, you are kind of wussying out there now, you’re going to let Eric run right by you? Eric’s a little on the chunky side.” I didn’t like him, I had the sense he was a bully, plus he played his favorites, Mike Quacktri, a toothy kid who seemed to have a different baseball hat for every day of the week, was prone to bragging, was a kid who you could tell held his favor. Being a small boy, I was often overlooked but also had a competitive spirit and was fast and agile, who played backyard football with a glee that felt as if I were on a ride at an amusement park. We were playing tee-ball, and as I stood on third base, the score tied and Mr. Swartz bellowing that this was the final play and that it looked like it would be a tie game, when the ball was struck I ran home, determined to prove him wrong and I slide into home plate, striking my knee into the tee-ball stand. The base shattered and my knee bled, my classmates huddled around me as I fought off tears and I heard the teacher tell them, “let him be, he’s being a little pussy.” From the ground, my cheeks covered in the fine powered dirt of the batter’s box and fingers bloodied by my knee, I yelled out, “Shut up!!”Suddenly, my small body was flung against the chain linked fence, my head cracking on the steel railing, bouncing off, Mr. Swartz grabbed me by my collar, “you little punk, you broke my tee ball plate, who taught you to talk like that?!”He tossed my to the ground, scooped me back up and pushed me towards the office, tears strained to poured off my face and I fought hard to keep them at bay. I limped to the edge of the playground, “pick it up!” he barked, grasping my left arm tightly, he lifted me a few inches off the ground, the tips of my tennis shoes dragging in the dirt. Certain to get paddled, knee bleeding and the shame of being tossed about in front of my classmates, I swallowed hard, making certain I would not cry in front of this man. As we walked into the office, Mr. Swartz yammered for the principal, “this kid needs a paddling and his mouth washed out!”

Sitting in the principal’s chair, knowing soon he would pull the thick wooden paddle complete with three large holes in the middle for maximum pain, I almost choked on the lump in my throat which had started formed after being tossed against the metal fence as if I were constructed of burlap bags and straw. Sitting in a hard plastic chair as the Principal furrowed his brow and looked across his grey metal desk, his back bathed in the bright spring sunshine, outside birds hopped along the power-lines. “What happened?” he asked his face a mask of concern. “I was running to home plate and I slid, hitting the tee-ball stand with my knee and Mr. Schwartz was telling kids not to help me, I told him to shut up. I was bleeding….then he threw me against the fence.” I had started rubbing the red rings from the rigid grip of the teacher, his hand had enveloped my thin biceps and left his imprint soon bruises would form. The principal called my father and asked him to come pick me up, hot tears were now dripping from my eyes, as if they had become swollen candles, embarrassment crawled up my neck and into my ears. A few minutes passed and I looked up, hands still trying in a pathetic futile attempt to wipe away the red scars of the gym teacher’s hands, “are you going to paddle me now?” A voice as small as a reed bending in the wind, the fear was almost alive. Standing up, the principal folded open in front of me, he was a tall man, nearly six foot three inches. With a dollop of black mussed hair that sat like a woven crown up his head, he walked around the desk in what appeared to be like a giant step. I still remember his hands, they were large, thick like fleshy boards of wood, almost planks and they reached for me, wanting to recoil but holding fast and I looked up at him. He placed his hands on both my shoulders, bent down and looked me in the eye, “no, I’m not going to paddle you, you’ve had a bad enough day.” He gave me a small hug, “don’t tell anybody that I didn’t paddle you though. I have a reputation to think of” he said with a wink. Relief, escaped from my quivering mouth. He asked the secretary to fetch me a glass of water. Time slunk by as I waited for my father, it was as if it were beaten about by the shoulders with its back broken in half, the clock ticked in a booming fashion, I was slumbering towards punishment. I waited in another hard plastic chair in the waiting area of the office, staring straight ahead as children walked past, my brother slid by the door waving his hand in a gesture of solidarity and I wanted him to save me once again. My father picked me up soon after, he held me tight as sobs escaped from my chest as if they were pigeons being freed from rooftop pen, he stroked my hair. We drove to his office, stopping at McDonalds along the way.

A few years later, sitting in the carnivorous school auditorium as countless seventh and eighth graders polished up the last few detention hours of the year, ordered to sit every other seat apart as if this would dissuade 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls from communicating, Mr. Davis a bearded bear of a man bellowed from the stage. “You are all here because you have misbehaved during the course of the year, as-such you have had ample time to fulfill your requirements of after-school detention which you have been too lazy to do. Hence you are here with me, there will be no talking, no looking around and if you didn’t bring anything to keep busy, then tough. If you communicate with your neighbor you will not get credit for being here and will have to redo detention this week, or finish it in summer school.” He was large man, who had a reputation among the children as being a mean-spirited, cruel and violent. The year prior he had snapped up a youngster, by his shoulders, twirled him in the air and slammed the child against a locker rendering his wrist inoperable for the next month. He was a man to be feared, a veritable Javert whose presence at the end of the long lacquered hallways would send children scurrying like rats into the nearest sewers, on top of that, he was a lousy teacher.

Zoltan was getting ready to graduate the 8th grade, he towered above me on so many levels, popular with the boys, girls and teachers, his charming ways had made his transition to various schools and neighborhoods as easy as warm butter on toast. He sat in the row in front of my, grinning as the last minutes of middle school ticked away, he eyed our friend Eric Zudak who meandered his way down the same aisle as Zoltan and listening to Mr. Davis scream from the stage, “Mr. Zudak, why are you late?! And if you have a good excuse you can sit five seats away from Mr. Koe-Krompecher!” Replying with a wide grin, Eric explained, “I was helping Ms. Houska pack up her car, she said you could check with her.” He plopped in the thin folding wooden seat, his backside feeling the crackling wood starting to splinter after so many bottoms had sat through innumerable hours of choirs, plays and graduations over the years. Sitting between the both of them, one row back, I noticed Zoltan making eye contact with Eric, nod his head and mouth, “hey man.” No sounds emitted from his mouth. A bomb went off from the stage, a giant sound that filled the high spacious room, Mr. Davis croaked from his perch, “Mr. Koe-Krompecher, get up here right NOW!!” The anger of his voice eating the air out of theater, it resonated long after the spittle had left his hairy mouth. Zoltan moved towards the front, slipping by Eric, everybody’s eyes moved from him to the authoritative teacher. Zoltan was still smiling as he approached Mr. Davis, in his mind he had nothing to worry about, it was the conclusion of a long three years of middle school, his time in Athens had been rewarding, this young brave man had worked extremely hard and disciplined himself to shake off the dire predictions of professionals who had painted him as a troubled kid, a boy whose frustrations just a few years prior would erupt in volcanic episodes of violence had been tempered by incisive intelligent, slicing humor and the ability to form friendships out of the smoky passage of seconds. He had found his home. Standing in front of Mr. Davis, “yes sir?” Lunging at the boy, Mr. Davis plucked my 13-year-old brother up, and proceeded to shake him as if he were a chicken leg, secured in a zip-lock baggie, a human Shake-n-Bake on the stage. Through gritted teeth Mr. Davis, snarled, “I told you to not make any contact with anybody.” With that he pushed Zoltan away like a king to a servant who had just dropped his golden chalice. “Now go sit down and shut your mouth.” Gathering himself, Zoltan walked proudly back to his seat, with bated breath, the collective gasps of the children were focused on the inevitable tears that would flow from his cheeks. Alas they never came, Zoltan sat down, his eyes reddened, but no water escaped from his eyes. His face sweltering beat red from fear, shame and astonishment at what transpired he nodded towards me; he was ok. Anger filled me, it was like the room had been filled with water, submerged in anger at the unjust treatment of a child, my brother and trembled inside but could do nothing. Weighing maybe seventy-five pounds, arms as thin as red and white stripped straws, I struggled to keep my ass in my seat, wanting to flee but realizing I had to stand fast. “Mr. Zudak, what is your problem? Did you not bring anything to detention?!” Mr. Davis obviously wasn’t satisfied with assaulting one child today, “Get your butt up here!” Eric moved slowly towards the front, taking the side steps up to the stage he stopped well short of the big man, “Well, it’s the last day of school so I turned all my books in so I don’t have anything…sir.” Mr. Davis stepped towards Eric, his boat-like leather shoes echoing across the stage, the wooden floorboards wheezing under his weight, even these planks of dead trees were fearful of this man. Eric took as step back with every step Mr. Davis took towards him, an odd, almost graceful dance of mimicry. Eric was a bright boy. Finally, the bearded giant stopped, “well get a piece of paper from one of your classmates who actually came prepared for detention and write about what got you here.” With that, Mr. Davis turned in disgust and returned to his afternoon newspaper. Eric, hopped off the stage, waited as a classmate handed him a single page of notebook, the left side riddled with the tiny flaps of paper that had once held it fast to the small metal rings. The last day of school indeed.

Summer came and went, soft sounds of adolescent burbled through our veins, things were changing fast, the nineteen seventies were over and the eighties were now unfolding in our lives fueled by teenage hormones that would dictate our collective lives for the remainder of the decade. The sounds coming from the uptown record shops were changing, chugging and whirling sounds of electrical guitars popped through the air of Haffa’s and the newly opened School Kids Records, punk rock had settled in firmly in the small college town, and mixed with the early sounds of hip-hop, the cold disco beats of a disintegrating club scene in NYC and England, the air was electric and from a thirteen-year old’s perspective as wide open as the universe. Reagan had not yet launched his assault on defunding every government program to help the poor and middle class, AIDS had not been named, therefore it was mostly a hidden scourge the was quickly burying homosexual men on the coasts—it had not yet torched the gay community in the Midwest. The school year of 81-82, was a step towards adulthood, albeit in the clumsiest manner a boy of thirteen could muck his way into. Sex was a mystery, one that was witnessed through the eyes of R rated movies like Porky’s, Animal House and The Rocky Horror Picture show, funny and confusing situations that played out on giant canvas screens in our tiny town. Snickering in the back row, the boys were brave, puffing out meager chests, pretending we weren’t virgins while wondering what a vagina actually felt like let alone an orgasm. Acne popped out of faces like dandelions overnight and the fear of being discovered was played out every morning in choosing out the most looking casual outfit that was planned with early-morning anxiety that produced buckets of tears in many households. Eighth grade. A big step and at the time, there were kids in Athens County, whose parents never finished the eighth grade, as the importance of a college education was not yet baked into the national consciousness.

Pro-Ked sneakers grew smooth as I slummed all over the town, bouncing from record store to record store, arcade to arcade and people in town started to know my name, stepping from beneath my older brother’s shadow, finally gaining confidence as the year went by. Classwork wasn’t too difficult with the exception of math, where an undiagnosed learning disability started trickling in fear and self-doubt about my academic abilities, and many of the teachers were receptive to my dark and sarcastic humor with the exception of the curly haired science teacher, who hung a large smooth wooden paddle on the wall behind the aquarium. A silent statement about who was in charge. And Mr. Davis, who taught math, a double-whammy for a kid who played Dungeons and Dragons, couldn’t sit still and had trouble keeping his mouth shut. Sitting in the middle of the class for most of the year, staring out the window as cars rolled by, birds sang songs that mocked the children sweltering in the broiling classroom, there was no air conditioner in the building, until finally the last day of school arrived. I had made it, not one issue in Mr. Davis’s class, the plan for the entire year was not to talk. Ever. And on that last day of school, I thought that this girthy foul man did not even know my name, I was proud and excited, the eighth grade dance would be that night and I had a date.

I sat in my chair, it was the first class after lunch, mid-May and the sun baked the grass outside, cicadas were escaping from their fifteen-year slumber, their chirping sounds of lust filled the air. An insect choir singing for all the children, a cacophony of sexual urges by bugs stuck to the sides of trees, trembling against the rough bark for all of adolescences on the final day of school. The hallways were polished, set for a summer of sleep where no small feat could rub the sheen away, rubber soles upon the floor would instead be traded for thin flip-flops and bikinis at the local pool, where small gestures of kindness could propel a teenager into roiling states of awkwardness. Crumpled bits of paper, lined the corners of the hallway as lockers were cleaned out in hurried rushes, as if the process of tossing old assignments out as quickly as possible would rid our lives of all the anxiety they once inspired. “Fuck ya’all”, went the thought as notebooks were emptied out into circular metal trash bins. Going years without a diagnosis, living with ADHD is at once thrilling and at other times a jumbled mess of panicked moments and feelings of inadequacy, at times the shame and self-loathing are as heavy as trying to pull a tireless semi-truck. Filled with boulders. As big as the trucks hauling them. Massive. Big. Large. Thick.

Mr. Davis was my math teacher in 8th grade, leaning nothing in the class except to realize that I sucked at math (again, the learning disorder that wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my mid-thirties). But it was the final day of school, it had passed without once being a target for his brutal teaching methods, his classroom was built upon fear with him pulling out that wooden paddle and tapping it on his large cracked leather feet. His personal life must have been one of misery. Mr. Davis did very little to educate the children under his responsibility and his lack of concern for the education of the children in his classroom was palatable even to the young eyes of early teenagers. If we were flies, he would have pulled off our wings.  As the students would enter his classroom, the large man would peer at each one, dark eyes half shut would scan every child up and down—needing no practice for intimidation as the small folds of skin above his eyes would strike fear in every child who entered his classroom. It was a talent he no doubt relished. But on this, the final step of a long journey of middle school had reached its apex with nary an issue, somehow despite a proclivity to draw attention to myself I had made myself small the entire year in this behemoth’s classroom. This trait of staring down young children, I have learned, is quite common among intimidating teachers. A trait that some regard as a talent while others feel it no room in a place of learning.

The desks were small, with a small plank of wood used for the top, it was connected by a green metal arm to the chair, itself another hardened piece of wood that had caused great unrest to little narrow butts over the past forty years. Underneath the chair was a small cubby where a student could stash books, notebooks or a miniature backpack, but on this day, the final day of school there were no books, papers or backpacks to stash. It was the second to last class of the day, a trembling sigh of relief hung over the hallways and classrooms from the 400 students. Usually, I sat towards the back of the classroom, it was more ubiquitous and for a small kid like myself it was easy to huddle behind all of the bigger boys in the class and at this point in my life all the boys were bigger than me. Alas, all the chairs were taken when I danced into the room, just under two hours to go and we had the 8th grade dance that evening. Perhaps the burgeoning awaking within my body played even a larger role in the giddy anxiety I felt, as I had a date with a very pretty brunette girl who no doubt was as nervous as I was. Even in the days, it was hard to believe that any female would be nervous around a boy, working hard to maintain whatever sliver of cool I had and usually plugged my hands into my pocket and cracked wise. As I skidded towards the lone remaining seat I apologized to Mr. Davis as I was a few minutes late after helping to set up the cafeteria for the dance.

“You’re still late BKK, and if it wasn’t the last day of school, that would earn you a detention. Now just sit there and shut up until the end of the period.”

“But Mr. Davis, I was with Ms. Anderson helping  to set up the dance.”

“I said SHUT UP and put your head down!”

Placing my head down and looking sideways, I saw my friend Danny Abdella sitting next to me, he made a wide eyed face, his eyebrows arched high, staring at me as if to tell me that this was no time to act up. Smiling, I pointed my finger at Danny, making like a gun with my fist, I pulled the trigger. Suddenly I was lifted out my chair, in one fell swoop Mr. Davis flipped me into the air, all 80 pounds of me, hitting the floor he kicked me over the smooth wood towards the far corner, “I told you not to move, not to talk, not to do anything! Now get up and stand in the corner!” his voice lurched above my fear. A pitch black shadow covering my emotions. Hunkering in the corner, fat tears crawling down my soft boyish face, I eyed the window. It was half-way open, “it’s what maybe six feet to the ground, I can jump out and run to mom’s office, he would never catch me.” The soft green grass beckoned, a six-foot jump was safer than being in the room with the bearded brute. Bees flew from soft white flowers while the wind made tempting waves upon the green carpet. Cars drove by, and college students walked the sidewalk, feeling a kinship with them I suddenly yearned to be old, to be strong and to be big enough to fight back. In the end, I wept softly in the back of the classroom, all the children’s eyes upon me and after the bell rang, I hurried out of class away from the hesitations of my friends, as if approaching me would put themselves in harm’s way.

Making my way to the cafeteria was a blur, wanting to run as far as away from the school, exiting the wide glass doors, up the concrete steps towards the gymnasium I felt sick. Nausea had replaced the fear that had choked the breath from my throat, confusion bounced around my head as feet didn’t need a command to take me towards safety. Behind me I heard my name, “Bela, Bela, wait up!” Turning my brother stood in front of me, “we gotta call mom, if you leave then nothing will get done and she can meet you out here.” If anything, he was usually right, “O.K., but I’m not going back in there unless mom is with me.” Zoltan called our mother from the payphone in the cafeteria doorway, I slinking his head between the door and the corner of the black and silver metal phone, it was fastened into the wall as if someone may try to steal it and every teenage secret it no doubt stored amongst it green, red and white wires. The spiral metal cord wrapped around his finger, the phone call took a least two weeks to finish. A few moments later, he hung up, taking me by the elbow he guided me outside. “She’s on her way, she is going to meet up by the gym. I told her you were too scared to go back into the school.”

There is nothing like seeing a mother come to the rescue, her short red hair and confident walk comforted me but in the end I was ashamed, and it wasn’t until she pulled me in tight to her waist and kissed the top of my mussed hair did I let myself feel again. More droplets of water escaped my eyes as I described what happened, “We are going to talk to Mr. Smith about this.” Mr. Smith, was the principal, a short stocky man with a full Grizzly Adams gray beard, his daughter was in my grade and they went to the same church as us. Entering the office my mother asked to see him and he ushered us in, closing the door his first words were, “why didn’t you come straight to me?” “I was scared. I wanted to go home.” I meekly replied. Looking down the barrel of the past 35 years, it makes sense, as the school did nothing when Mr. John Davis manhandled my brother the year before and broke the arm of another kid. “Well, I want an investigation Donald!” my mother was angry, “and I’m taking Bela home now, we can talk next week.” The short fat man, held his hands together, parsing his words he was careful, “Susan, if Bela leaves now he will only be counted a half day and he can’t attend the dance tonight.” He stared across the desk from me, “that is the rule of the school and I can’t override it but if you want to stay you don’t have to go to your last class you can stay in my office until the end of the school. There is only about 45 minutes’ left.” With a small voice I pleaded with my mother, “that’s not fair, he beat me up, and now I have to stay. I already have my ticket to the dance and I’m taking Coleen.” “Sorry, rules are rules” Mr. Smith replied. “This does not seem to be fair, he is upset and there is no reason he shouldn’t be able to return for the dance.” “If he leaves school now, he can’t return tonight.” In the end, full of weary fear, and stress I stayed, I returned to school that night for the final dance of the year. Less than two weeks later we moved from Athens to Catawba, Ohio. There was no investigation.

Northeastern High School basically consisted of five hallways, one story, a cafeteria, and gymnasium. It was a small school, surrounded by cornfields and a pockmarked gravel lot for the handful of beat up cars and pick-up trucks. The majority of teachers in the school had been there for years, and many had been born in the area, attended nearby colleges and returned. Besides a handful of excellent teachers such as my freshman and sophomore English teacher, Jon Barber it was safe to say that many of them did not encourage intellectual curiosity. The guidance counselors were lacking in skills having told both Zoltan and I were not “college material” and we should think about trade schools. Walking through the doors for the first time felt like a prison sentence, as I overheard hushed voices whispering “did you see that new kid, with the funny name, is he even old enough to be in high school?” or “I bet that kids a fag with a name like that.” Climbing into books helped, fantasy stories, history books and Kurt Vonnegut provided the relief that was a life outside the gold and red cinder block walls of Northeastern High School. Retreating into the shyness of my younger adulthood, I kept my head down but being an adolescence with Attention Deficit Disorder was an obstacle as it one-liners fell forth out of my mouth without nary a thought to hold it back, a quick quip is worth every ounce of punishment. The freshman science teacher, Mr. Stevens was a younger man, he looked a bit like a boyish Mr. Keaton from “Family Ties” with parted wispy hair and sometimes he caught hold of one my jokes and half smiled, giving me the impression that he actually liked me. Other times, he asked me to sit in the front or to wait outside of the classroom to gather myself if I was too excited and bouncy. One day we were working with some sort of acid, using thin eyedroppers we were to put dab of the acid on various organic and inorganic items such as a hardboiled egg, the skin of a dried lizard, and wood. We worked in teams, two or three of us, each placing the acid on the item and the others recording the results. Very pedestrian stuff unless the student has a difficult time following directions because he can’t focus. Jeff Entler had the luxury of testing the frog skin, a small billow of smoke rose out of the dried reptile, he handed me the small glass container, carefully I put the eyedropper in, mindful of the oversized plastic gloves and how they made a clumsy boy more clumsy and squeezed the small black rubber top on the white springy egg. I had misjudged as I placed the end of the eyedropper directly onto the egg, a small amount of acid shot out from the sides, like a cherry tomato popping in an open mouth. It squirted into my face, and my eyes, luckily the protective goggles protected my forehead and black curly hair as I had forgotten to pull them over my eyes. Importunely for my eyes, a small amount landed right on my below my eyes, “shit!” I yelled, as Jeff called for the teacher, who rushed over and with astute thinking lead me to a small sink and rinsed out my eyes and face. Remarkably, it did not hurt too much and it all happened in a matter of seconds. “Thank you” I said, being a little nervous, grabbing me by my wrist he hustled me into the hallway. “What that hell are you doing to my classroom?! You could go blind fooling around with that stuff!” Clutching my collar, he threw me against the lockers, “If I could kick your ass right now, I would you little shit! I didn’t like you the minute you walked in my classroom and if I could get you out of my class I would!” Mr. Stevens then shoved me against the locker a second time. “Not again” I thought. Being a little older, I defended myself, “Mr. Stevens I was not fooling around, you can ask everybody at the table, I was doing what you said to do.” Wrestling the goggles off my forehead, yanking my hair in the process, “Bullshit, because if you did you would have these on your face! Listen, I want you to stay out in the hallway for the rest of the class and to shut your little mouth for the rest of the year.” “yes, sir.” Learning from my previous encounters from angry aggressive teachers, I never said a thing. Why would I?

Tucked in the corner, beneath a hand-drawn map of the world, and next to a wooden shelf that was exclusively built for LP records, with the top shelf constructed to hold roughly 100 7” singles, cover’s facing out for easy flipping but now holding one shelf devoted to Star Wars, Pokémon and the original dog-eared Charlie Brown paperbacks that Zoltan and I learned to read with sits two small guitars. One is an acoustic purchased with love by an adoring grandfather and the other, a small red Fender Stratocaster, which is housed in a stainless steel stand, and when the light hits just right, both the guitar and red guitar twinkle like specks of glitter on a girl’s face. There are actually three of those shelves lined together, all stuffed with tiny cubbies, books, baseball cards, guitar picks, stuffed animals that provide comfort when the maple tree branches thump against the green colored garage, reminding the neighborhood throughout a stormy blackened night that, yes, nature is still in charge and is something to rile the fear out of a small boy tucked under a mountain of blankets. On the other wall, a framed Spider-Man puzzle given away by a musician friend and tacked up around the room are a bevy of silk-screened rock posters, all hand made with the names of the everyman musicians that dot my record collection: Karl Hendricks Trio, The Whiles and Dinosaur Jr. At first impression the room looks just like a youngster’s room, the Pokémon shelf, the Charlie Brown, the hand-drawn pictures of mom and dad, sister too, even the lines drawn against the far wall marking age with lead pencil lines as the children in the house climb higher and higher over the years, an inch here and another inch there. Then the other items, the rock posters, the guitar, the line of Christmas lights, hung carefully along the walls, and some tools scattered on the floor. These are not little kid tools, but the adult flavor, heavy made of metal and heavy plastic and Bruno knows how to use them. He can spend hours outside making ladders, stages for his drums and guitars, a fort that never quite makes it past floor level, for his seventh birthday he wanted a toolshed. Every day when our friend Mike came out and built it, Bruno was outside helping, watching, carrying wood, holding the sides up and in the end helping to paint it. The kid has more tools than his father.

Children bring the world into a perspective that is never imagined, it’s as if a person lived their entire life living underwater. In the dark. And suddenly they are thrust of above the waves, into the shimmering sun, pulled from a cold and blurry life into one of brilliant colors and yes, choppy waves. One may not know one has ever been drowning until they can suck in the air, that is what life can be like for an alcoholic who discovers sobriety, and children. Some of the elements we look for as adults are the ones that we felt we had to find as teenagers, sex, intimacy, and the feeling of not being alone, and for a while, they come easy and at other times they come desperately, a three am desperation with trembling fingers and awkward pauses that break through the brittle darkness like darts aimed at the moon. Usually falling short, but at times, charming in their feeble attempt. My children did this for me, and slow process of time management, sacrifices, with the mundane being the gravity that holds they family together. Such as the yearning for a crying child to finally fall asleep, transforming from a screaming, shrieking animal caught in the bear-trap of its mind, into the soft salve for a violent universe. Bruno, cracks wise, he has a sense of humor that stands wise and cutting that makes one think he is a very old soul, like his sister who reads books that aren’t always age-appropriate and listens to the Mountain Goats alongside Taylor Swift. When he runs across the soccer field a determined look across his face, his blond curls dangling past his shoulders, it’s as if I was there with him, living a childhood I never had. The joy that dances from his cheeks is as infectious as lighting dotting the dark summer sky, brilliant flickers of white energy that booms across the landscape. Bruno has arrived.

One never thinks that a child’s life can be broken by the inner violence of an adult, unless you are the child that is licked by the adult or at times a parent that feels the hidden experience of abuse sideways, when it erupts in small earthquakes. What I understand as a parent is that it is my job allow that child to be a child for as long as he can be, no matter what and by doing so, he will always be a child on the inside.IMG_2905.JPGIMG_2896.JPGIMG_0198.JPGcanvas.pnghttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JcCXUzZWWpY&list=PLFBEA5C8D8536B1F0&index=13STAGE KIDS.JPGIMG_0263.JPGsaskiacharilebrown.JPGPUMMLE.JPG

he can play this on his guitar: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsadA1n-V9Q

Above photo: Randy Newman signing autographs for my children at The Nelsonville Music Festival.

 

Ohio, (repost from 2010, for Cleveland)

June 21, 2016

I wrote this in 2010 about what it means to grow up in Ohio, being an underdog, perhaps more of a wet underdog at that. I think it’s pertinent today after the Cavaliers win.

Ohio

Growing up in Ohio is different for all Ohioans, most because, like so much of the United States, Ohio is both vastly rural and also contains some of the largest and best known cities in the country. Everybody has heard of Cleveland and Cincinnati two large cities with history and reputations. Cleveland was populated by a large ethnic population from Eastern Europe, with massive Serbian, Hungarian and Czech immigrants who traveled west-ward to boil away their lives in the steel mills and manufacturing jobs of Northeastern Ohio. Cincinnati is nestled in the southwestern part of the state, just across from Kentucky; it is metaphorically across the invisible mason-Dixon line of Ohio. Hamilton and Clermont counties are two of the most conservative counties in Ohio, and while much of the state has overcome many of the racial tensions, Cincinnati with several large riots in the past two decades appears, at times mired in the early 1960’s.

Columbus would be that invisible Mason-Dixon Line, most people have heard of Columbus, the largest in terms of population of all the cities in Ohio it is mostly known as the largest college town in the country. A city that lives and breathes Ohio State football, which was mired in a multi-decade hangover after repeated defeats in the Rose Bowl that costs the saintly Buckeyes numerous National Championships. Even the smaller cities of Ohio are known, Toledo, Dayton, Canton and Akron have all garnered space in the minds of national citizenry, even if it is for such pop-culture phenomena as Corporal Klinger, the Wright brothers, the Pro Football Hall of Fame and rubber tires.

Then there is small town Ohio, with images of Sherwood Anderson, unlocked doors, county fairs filled with cotton candy and first kisses. An idealistic concept that feeds into the basic American dream that a small-town anybody can arise from corn-fields and hidden glens to climb into space like Neil Armstrong or John Glenn, the Presidency (seven of them-all mediocre hail from Ohio, or the silver screen such as Paul Newman and Clark Gable.

Because of its history and rich tradition, Ohio ranks fifth in colleges and universities which logically lead one to believe this is the reason it is home to so many artistic and inventive people. In spite of all of this, when one grows up in Ohio, one has the feeling of being the underdog, of someone who always just comes up short.

Ohio is known and felt as an also-ran, an area known for what it almost has but never had, and in fact never will. For an ocean we have a large lake, for mountains we have foothills and we are forever defined by our collective losses. Our sports teams are known for despair, in Cleveland it is brought out in such slogans as The Fumble, The Drive and losing the World Series with one out to go. Cincinnati is tethered to a football team better known as the Bungles and Ohio State Football went thirty years between National Championships and is better known now for losing two in the past five years. We are in our hearts cynical but lovable malcontents.

Musically, Ohio is rich, especially when it comes to punk rock, with an abrasive arty sound that helped birth the movement. Helped by the ample liberal arts colleges that dot the state, such as Oberlin, Kenyon and Antioch and huge state universities such as The Ohio State University, Ohio University, Kent State and Bowling Green. The arts scenes have always burped out terrific and idiosyncratic fare such as Pere Ubu, Devo, the Wolverton Brothers, the Dead Boys, and Guided by Voices. In the late eighties each town had its own brand that helped define and nurture the other bands and artists. Cleveland had the most excellent and under-appreciated Prisonshake, the Mice, Death of Samantha, My Dad is Dead and Cruel, Cruel Moon. Dayton had Guided by Voices. Cincinnati had the aforementioned Wolverton Brothers whose shambling country-art punk is as twisted as anything from a David Lynch movie, the Ass Ponys and the Afghan Whigs. Athens birthed Appalachian Death Ride and Geraldine, two sinister bands that would be at least marginally famous if they resided anywhere but Athens, Ohio.

In Columbus, we first had Jim Shepard (Vertical Slit/V-3), Scrawl, the Great Plains, the Gibson Brothers, Royal Crescent Mob, Boys From Nowhere and Mike Rep all made up of various odd-balls and characters who would play a huge role in the development of what is somewhat now being regarded as a high point in the Columbus underground scene. The specialness of that time was mostly due to the large and fanatical friendships and respect we had for not only one another but also for those bands that set the stage. Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae would both be besides themselves to share the stage with any Ron House fronted band and the same would be said for the New Bomb Turks who would open for any band they deeply respected, whether it be the Fastbacks (from Seattle) or Prisonshake.

We put stock in ourselves and to a large part, our friends. Friends who would carry the torch of loneliness offset by a burning desire to be heard and to hopefully lay next to another congenial soul by five am. Our hopes, crashed as theirs did when things did not quite pan out as we had planned. We were prepared for it, as it is in an Ohioan’s soul to step up to the plate and be called out by the proverbial sinker ball. Three strikes. The Trip. The Fumble. The Drive. Etcetera and so forth. Nobody got famous, nobody ever really made a dent in any product counting mechanism like Billboard, The College Music Journal or MTV but we loved and cherished one another as if our lives depended on it, night in and night out. What we discovered was the result wasn’t the prize; the prize was the friendship and the making of art for fuck’s sake. That is what an Ohioan does, not always stylish but always sincere.

Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae: place. pt one–kinda

February 21, 2016

Place.

The shore was pocketed with holes and debris, the tide rolled into the beach in terrible fits, white peaked waves hurtling themselves towards the houses that lined the coast, a competition to see which one would wreck one of the million dollar homes. Heavy gray clouds hung just above the sea, like a water logged ceiling waiting to burst, they mimicked the waves, tumbling and wheeling over one another, almost dipping themselves into the ocean. The storm was most probably the residue from Hurricane Faye, that battered the beaches of East Long Island as if the beach houses were constructed out of Styrofoam We walked the beach, the winds blowing hard against us and the sea wrestling with itself, we happened upon a row of houses that had been eaten by the sea, large bites from the waves had splattered the houses, exposing the skeleton of the houses, some were literally cut in half. It was like giant sized doll houses, with paintings still visible on walls, bedroom sets, and furniture exposed to the world. There was nobody else on the beach, and if there were they would have most likely been Midwestern transplants who had never walked the beach before as the natives knew better than to stroll the beach post Hurricane.

My fondness for the sea was planted there, and I still think about living near the ocean, the mystery and wisdom of the water has held sway in me since that year and a half on Long Island. Memory has a way of making people trip over the cinders in their mind, some things happened and others didn’t but the emotion of the memory is seared into the skull like a branded cow. This summer on the way to Boston to pick up our children we stopped in Rhode Island, taking two hours to fall into the sea, I breathed in the salt and felt the hard pebbles of the craggy sand under my toes, swimming into the calm waves, letting the water ride over me as if I were floating in space, my soul tried to swallow the sea instead of it swallowing me, and I was transformed back into a child, all of six years old gazing and the wonderment of the North Atlantic.

Larry’s smelled of old wood, beer and cigarettes, a pocket of familiarity that was at once calming and inviting, unlike the beer soaked enamel floors of the south campus bars, that someone smelled of both stale beer and bleach, two chemicals that can induce nausea, the heart-worn décor of Larry’s and a few of the other neighborhood (i.e. dive-bars) felt as comfortable as an old blanket. Larry’s was the bar where my father met my mother, it was where I met Jerry Wick and the place that felt safer than almost anywhere else I went, including home. After we split up, Jenny avoided most of the haunts we ventured into together, she kept her distance from me for nearly a year, ex-lovers have the power of dismantling a person with just a shadow or a scent. She asked me several times to warn her when I was going to a show she might be at, although the chances of us running into one another were rare as I didn’t want to see her as much as she didn’t want to see me. She drifted towards Dick’s Den, where the nightly jazz musicians provided a solace to her as she entertained whatever man was trying to uncover her secrets and I stuck to Larry’s, Bernie’s and Staches, all of them now shuttered. And with a sound of a song or the scent of a beer I am transported back there.

The neighborhood of North Linden in Columbus, was eaten from the core outward from the parasitic substance of crack-cocaine, the fall of a once proud neighborhood was swift and like most African-American neighborhoods over the course of history the powers that be left it die from neglect and a careful, deliberate ignorance of the facts. I sat on my grandfather’s Austin’s knee, as the fireplace snapped and popped, small hissing sounds seeping from the wood just a few feet away. On the black and white television, images of Archie Bunker flickered and small chuckles slipped out of the old man’s mouth. Reaching his hand around me, striking a wooden match against the sandpaper-like side of the match-box, he lite his Winston and was careful to blow the smoke away from me and took a sip off his Jim Beam and water, I held his brawny hand. He had fought in the Battle of the Bulge, had a shotgun in the closet of the guest room and spoke very little, whenever we asked about the war he would say it was a long time ago. In those days, as a five-year-old in 1973, the Second World War seemed like another life-time, when in reality it was less time than my first discovery of Larry’s nearly 30 years ago.

Stomachs leaped high into our throats, while our bottoms went the other way, the yellow bus tilted this way and that, rocking to and fro with every pothole, sharp turn and stop. Hills grew steeper when in the bus, it chugged up the steep Appalachian foothills like a retarded Little-Engine that could (n’t) as the shocks had long been shocked out of existence. We lived roughly eight miles into the recesses of Athens County, a forty-five-minute marathon of a bus ride that choked the childhood out of me. It was a mass of sticky tweeners and early teens, and the children on the bus were not really the well to do kids of University professors, we were on the far west side of town heading towards Fox Lake, up and behind the soon to be closed State Mental Hospital, this winding road was dotted with poverty. With pit-stops along the route, that were furnished with dilated trailer parks, barking dogs, massive mud puddles that appeared to have springs of brown polluted water under them, and small bare-legged children screaming every time the bus pulled up. This was a hellish ride, some of the children grew cold at this early age in their lives, the emotional coldness manifesting itself as hardened cruelty towards some of the other children. I sat quietly, I stood out for my nerdiness, I was small kid, liked to draw pictures of rock bands and cartoons in my notebook and cracked wise whenever I good, much of my sarcasm flung at many of the poor Appalachian kids when I was in the safe confines of the school. The rednecks could be brutal, and the bus-driver, a young man who wore a ball cap and smoked a cigarette while driving would play the radio. The only time when the kids all agreed on something was when Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” or Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” came on the small portable radio that hung from the large dashboard of the bus. The bus would erupt with the chorus of children screaming “We don’t need no education!” and for the majority of the kids on Athens County Public School Bus number 24, their scholastic education would end in a few short years.

There was a petite young girl on the bus, a year older than me who had long stringy blonde hair. She always sat quietly, looking forward, not making eye contact and clutching her books tight against her. She wore a Navy Blue coat, with the elbows rubbed thin, her pink sweater poking through and the collar pulled up tight. Suddenly a boy behind me threw a spit-ball at her, it landed in her thick hair. “Ain’t you gonna pick it out!?” he snarled as he spits another one at her, this was also landing into her blond locks. She didn’t move. I looked back at the boy, he was fat-ish, with large teeth that made the rest of his pudgy cheeks smaller, he wore a fishing hat and a jean jacket. “Gimmie another piece of paper,” he motioned to the boy next who him, who snickered away, ripping a corner of paper and quickly chewing it he spit it out on her again. “Hey, you got three now!! Quite a collection going!” Soon, a barrage of spitballs was landing atop of the girl, I sat quietly as boys and girls around me hurtled insults pasted on the end of bits of wet paper at her. Caught up in the moment, I ripped a piece of paper from my notebook, the one with carefully drawn pictures of Cheap Trick and John Lennon and stuck it in my mouth and in a moment, I too, spit it upon her. I looked at her, and saw large bulbous tears running down her cheeks, and I was suddenly flooded with shame, the remorse I felt was unsettling and even though I was just a child, maybe twelve it was one of the worst moments of my life. I climbed across the aisle of the bus, and watched her gallop across her mud-caked yard as a large brown dog, tied up with a hunk of twisted rope barked madly—surely he loved her, and witnessed these boys and girls yelling insults at her as she scampered into her house. “Mom, I don’t want to ride the bus anymore.” She looked over at me, a spoonful of mashed potatoes dangling above my plate. “Why not?” she looked concerned, no doubt her mind wondering just what I would do with myself after school. “Well, it takes forever to get home and sometimes Zoltan has football, why can’t I just hang around up-town until you are done with work?” “Mom, the bus is pretty gross” my brother answered. “Well, I suppose but you can’t bother me at work.” Soon my afternoons would be filled with sitting behind the record counter of Side-One Records (where the fellows had to be the only Herman Brood fans in the midwest) and the basement dwelling of Haffa’s records and books, themselves making emotional imprints on my mind with the smell of cardboard records covers, paperback books and the musty smell of comic books, and while I deeply regretted my act of bullying that fall day in 1980, the feeling of guilt and sadness for that young girl has never left me.

Statis: Written around 1999 or so, unsure

January 16, 2016

Explanation: I began writing around 1991 or so, my first attempt was a story based on a woman I went out with who worked in the sex trade industry, was a heroin addict and was sexually abused by her father for many years. I can’t recall her name, and I believe she is dead now. We only went out on a few dates, one of which resulted in a very funny story involving my dog Istvan. Sadly, I have nothing left of this story–but it was pretty long, all hand typed, etc…. I then wrote a short story for my ex-wife called “Napoleon Trees”, I think this is gone as well, it was about love, an old house and trees talking to each other. I also wrote a story about a little boy based on Jenny Mae’s little brother finding a candy wrapper and it containing the history of the world. I think this is gone as well.  Oh, well. I wrote a lot of poetry in the 90’s hardly any since 2005. The following is a story I attempted to write as I was wrestling with my alcoholism, I think I started it around 1999, I continued it off and on until I couldn’t really write any longer due to depression and drinking. This is a fairly long story, here is the first chapter. Currently I am writing a children’s story for my daughter.

Statis: Chapter One,

PART ONE:

 

To the left of him sat five nights of drinking, sitting still in their half filled glasses the oldest glasses were just collecting dust. To the right of him sat nothing really, just the blankets and sheets. He could hear the news jammering away across the room, something about the Saudis, something else about the prime minister of England and a lengthy discussion about sports by someone who didn’t care very much about sports. He rolled over and stared at the ceiling. Sighing deeply he felt the regret that had slowly seeped into his brain this morning. Another wasted evening that turned today into a soon to be wasted day. The hangovers stayed with him now like a stink that won’t wash off, he found himself forgetting things, easy things like phone numbers- bits of information he had always known-like the capitol of Maine. He realized all this, but still when eight or nine o’clock (or earlier as has been the pattern more recently) rolled around those facts just disappeared–poof and out came the drinks. Not too many to start with, he now tried to limit his beginnings to also include the endings but after two or three it didn’t matter. Everybody was an old friend, even the ones who he had barely gotten to know in the past fourteen years. And so it went. He imagined not how much money he had spent on booze that never bothered him- money that is. He wasn’t materialistic he would have spent it on something else. No, he was thinking how big the hole in the ground would have be to fill up all the bottles of booze he had drank in his adult life. It would be big; He figured he had drunk at least 40 drinks a week for eleven years that totaled at least twenty-eight thousand bottles of booze. That was giving and taking the weeks where he binged averaging ten to twenty drinks a night for a week or two at a time to those days where he just had one or when he was sick. That’s a big hole he thought as he counted the spider webs on the ceiling. “God, I need to vacuum the ceiling.”

He could hear her downstairs, getting ready for work, now she was in the living room putting on her shoes then back to the kitchen to finish her coffee. She didn’t even try to get him out of bed lately; she just arose and quietly did her business. Fed the dog, making the coffee-enough for both of them and quietly eating her breakfast by herself. He knew she hated that worst of all. She enjoyed his company while she ate it took her mind off the fact that she was eating. It was nice. She was now gathering up her briefcase, her purse and boom-she was gone.   “Fuck” he thought. He was now rubbing his face trying in some half stoned way to wipe away the guilt, the carelessness but it didn’t work, the Pabst had made a nice comfortable home for itself inside his head. It was on a ski vacation within’ his brains, sliding down one end then taking the shuttle back into his skull, then sitting by the campfire of his ears. He slung his feet over the side of the bed as stared at the pile of clothes besides the bed. They were lying on top of a singular shoe; he sat there for a moment staring down.

Even his penis was still drunk, lying between his legs like a wrinkly caterpillar. He lay back down looked at the ceiling again. “Oh man,” he thought. The spider webs were still there. The sun was coming through the window making sure he couldn’t fall back asleep, “get up lazy man” it was saying with it’s fifteen billion rays of light, “get the fuck up.” He yawned, pushed himself out of bed, and bent down to put on his shorts and made his way towards the bathroom. After a pee he put on some old orange shorts covered with cartoon dogs and went downstairs and the rumble pounded inside his head with every step. He made his way towards the kitchen all the while telling the dog to “settle down, settle down, and please for Christ’s sake settle down.” The dog needed to piss like a racehorse after drinking a six pack of Coke. “Gotta pee. Gotta pee. Gotta pee” thought the dog in his small doggie mind. He could see she left him some coffee and had left him some cut melon for breakfast. Slightly smiling he poured himself some coffee and sat down.

The newspaper was lying on the table neatly folded in half, with part of a headline shouting out into the world. “P ACROSS MIDWEST” is all he could read. He turned it over and read the other half “TORNADOS RI.” “More like Tornadoes Rip Through Hungover Man’s Mind” he said to himself. Underneath there was half a picture of a wrecked grocery store, it was so wrecked it looked more like an unkempt ten year old’s bedroom. The photo was taken in Indiana. He rubbed his head and sat down. He immediately went to the sports pages, he never really competed in sports, never cared for the macho sensibility all the athletes seemed to need when they were around one another, but he loved sports anyway. He enjoyed the fact that nothing was planned out, nobody was acting they were just going, just like the Romans did. It was fun-a very affordable way to escape. He yawned. It was still early, not on everybody’s terms but on his. Eight thirty, he knew he most of his friends would still be asleep, at least for several hours more, he also knew a few folks who would already be at work. He thought how much better they were feeling now compared to the way he felt. They would be laughing in their cubicles or answering e-mail with a studious face. Perhaps they would have the easy healthy buzz that comes after a five-mile jog. These thoughts didn’t make him feel any better in fact he felt a bit worse.   He knew he had to do something but he wasn’t sure what or how but it needed to be soon. He felt the coffee slide down his throat, felt the heat rise in his head. He cheeks felt heavy as if they were swollen. He was trying to remember how he got home last night, if he ate something when he arrived because he wasn’t hungry at the moment although he never really was on most hangover mornings. He turned towards the wastebasket. Sure nuff, Taco Bell. “That’s right ” he thought, he drove to Taco Bell and then drove home. It must have been 2:30 or so.

He picked up his cup of coffee and walked to the window, gazing outside at a lone rose perched above a billion pieces of dirt his face looked grim, almost gray. It was late summer early fall depending on the evening temperature at night which could dip to the low forties only to bounce up to eighty-five the next afternoon if it so desired, the roses were supposed to be already going to sleep for the coming winter, their once proud stretching green limbs now turning into a knarled brown twisting shell, but not this guy it had one more oomph left in him. Now atop a fairly lonely bush it waved in the morning sun like a school flag over a country school. Below the rose bush there was nothing just those billion specks of dirt, she had been weeding and preparing the soil for the next spring, it was quite a beautiful sight. The rose was looking for it’s friends but they had long since passed and it hadn’t even realized it. It had decided to wait for them. Every morning it thought to itself “they’ll be here any minute,” but they weren’t. He smiled at the rose in its singular glory and he looked at all the hard work that went on underneath it all. He shook his head at the thought of his hours wasted during the night, the hours wasted on the day after. He thought of time as a light that one can only turn on in special circumstances and one must choose carefully before their light blows out. He was wasting his light and the power to keep it burning was gonna go somewhere else. He knew that because patience runs the same way as time. In fact, they went to engineering school together, way back when even gases and cosmic dust were just distant thoughts in the grand scheme of things. He needed to gather his time together and put it in it’s proper outlet, he needed to get his priorities straight, he needed to quit drinking, he needed to get some more coffee and maybe an aspirin.

His headache was now forming a life of it’s own, without him knowing it the headache had appointed itself chief-of-staff of his very being. Its main objective was to make every waking moment a moment of thud-thud-thud, regret and slow moving action. It was giving directions to all the figures who helped develop these traits, even the throat was ordered to keep dry, to send a shudder to the forehead every time he swallowed. He got some more coffee to help against these movements but it only did so much, the smell of the coffee seemed to provide as much help as the liquid itself. Funny how those tiny beans from ten thousand miles away could provide relief from just their scent. As he made his way to the table the phone rang causing him to spill his coffee, not too much just enough to cause him to utter “shit.” He hurried to the phone muttering under his breath; his body thinking this was hard work but his mind knowing better seems like his body always knew better. “Yellow” he spoke into the receiver. “Hi…are you up?” came the sweet voice over the line. “Yeah, uh I’ve been up for a little while” he spoke slowly into the phone, adding, “sorry I didn’t make it up to join you for breakfast.” She paused on the other line then in a voice as sweet as the towering rose outside answered “that’s all right I knew you were tired; how do you feel?” She must know he felt like shit but she knew hangovers liked to pick their spots, sometimes they would only present themselves as a casual headache while other times they would appear as massive body quake affecting every thought and move. “Oh, I feel fine.” This was only a mild lie. She then asked him what was on his agenda for the coming day knowing he didn’t have to go to work for at least three and a half hours yet. “I suppose I’ll read maybe putter around the house.” That’s about all he was capable of doing at this point. There was another pause at the other end of the phone, and then she told him she would be home at seven o’clock and she was planning on making them dinner. “That sounds fine” he replied and then he added that he had to go not really to do anything but there was a certain degree of guilt clouding his being, “should have woken up”, “shouldn’t have drank so much last, better yet should have come home when I said I would” and so on and so forth. These thoughts hovered in and out of his thudding brain as mist on a mountain. What could he say? His mind as slow as it was moving had been diverted to the first time they had met, over seven years ago when all his annoyances now were at that time somewhat charming. She said “Goodbye, Nicholas, please be careful today.” Be careful.

That first memory of their meeting had now grown up around in his head and was all he could see. She was beautiful he remembered, and at the same time he remarked to himself “she still is.” Although he slightly noticed that she had lost some of the mysterious strength he had thought she carried so well to be replaced by an unassuming nervous calm that sometimes pervaded her every movement. He on the other hand had drifted somewhat towards some liquid edge since then. She smiled at him that afternoon, she must have known he was staring at her with every speck of sight his eyeballs could summon up out of themselves. He never realized that he himself could be handsome, and even more charming than he thought. It still amazed him that any woman, let alone a beautiful gentle creature like herself could take anything more than casual interest in him. Maybe for a laugh, a curious smile but really nothing more. It made him a bit nervous, but for some reason that nervous energy never came off as such it appeared more like an innocent comment that made the room a bit lighter. She walked towards him then, her perfect hips swaying just oh so softly and her mouth was in a half flirtatious smile, his eyes were immovable. In his mind he was thinking, “Holy shit, she’s coming over…here.” Wanted to check behind him but that would be too much, it would show too much vulnerability-he had been around enough to read the faces of women even if he thought there was no way in hell they were communicating with him. Men are guided by the unspoken rules that there are in fact different levels of league play in regards to the fairer sex, never paying too much attention these invisible masculine games still he knew when his charm could only work so far and for sure his other limitations: education, looks and money were lacking. She was out of his reach when he first saw her.   “Hi,” he spoke without a bit of hesitation but his head was thinking Super Bowl Sunday, winning the Lottery, a huge cash settlement and all the good things that happen to people that don’t deserve them. “Hi” was all she said back as she raised her perfectly formed hands up to her cheek. He had no idea that she could be as nervous as him, none, but she was. He thought to himself “not only is she beautiful but she’s smart.” For when her hand touched her cheek she looked very intelligent, it was as if she had just put on glasses. She was still smiling that half sexy half world-stopping smile. He was in love; it was like the first time the earth had drank from the sky. “What’s goin on” was all he heard himself say, in a somewhat deeper voice than he normally spoke. “Nothing much, how about you?” she replied and as she spoke her eyes did the whole ballet “Swan Lake” in a moment. How could two people fall in love over such simple words, of course they weren’t hearing each other. That would be like the centerfielder trying to listen to the guy selling beer nineteen aisles up. They traded idle chitchat as nervous people are prone to do, and finally they decided they needed to get past the silly words and make plans to spend time together.

That in itself is quite a step in any relationship, in fact it’s the first step, the one where you plan and realize you actually enjoy someone enough to spend time with them. For some people it’s harder to do those things because they value their time more than anything else. Sometimes they get paid a lot of money to spend their time somewhere. But these two young people decided to spend some time over dinner together. It made sense everybody needs to eat, and eating in itself is a very intimate procedure. People do it because they have to, because they enjoy it and best of all they use their mouths. Chewy chewy. For any beginning relationship the mouth is of course a central part of communication. It involves voice, smiles, frowns, eating and most obviously kisses.

She picked him up on that first date he hadn’t a car at the time, which was probably good, he most likely wound have wrecked it or getting it towed or something like that. He thought she would have a very practical car for she seemed very practical, not like a teacher but more like someone who just thought out all the important details. That is very important when purchasing a car. His experiences in buying cars were very impractical when obtaining some of his former cars, that’s why they were broken all the time. Some were almost missing floors, some had engine parts that were nine hundred and fifty years old in car time and others simply gave up the ghost hours after he bought them. Other times when he did have possession of an automobile he would lose it between three and ten am. It was as if the car had driven them home and dropped him off while it parked itself. It would only realize the dilemma of this when was struck dumb on the street with the fact that it had to way of informing him where it had parked itself. This would result in lost hours the next day as he muttered to himself while he walked down the street looking for the wayward car. Yes, it was better he didn’t have a car. She drove up on a faded blue VW Rabbit. It had a bit of rust around the hood-near the headlights, like lines around a middle-aged woman’s eyes. She was smiling at him, the same smile she had flashed him just days before, he grew excited not just sexually but in his mind. It would be a good night. He could tell.

She circled the block, when she drove by leaving him sitting on his porch with his shiny green shirt built in Nineteen Sixty-Five, she must have noticed what a wreck his life was, somehow she could just tell-and left him sitting on the stoop. The daylight revealed all his scars. He felt naked sitting on the steps, even the three drinks he had didn’t help, when her car passed in slow motion his heart quickened. When she passed and turned the corner he knew for certain that every broken dream that sat in his life was laid bare before her. The fears he wore inside his funny laugh must have been doing rabbit ears when she drove past. His knowing heart sank as she drove out of view. But when she appeared again in a few minutes his heart went from south to north and he flashed her a smile that could launch a whole advertising campaign for Oreo cookies. She climbed out of her car, well not really climbed more like floated out of her car he thought, she was a graceful as a branch bending ever so slightly in the summer breeze, moving not because of the wind but for the wind. A dance of gratitude. She was wearing a sort of weird jumpsuit that only a certain type of woman can pull off (well maybe a very happy fellow in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical), and a tight gray shirt underneath that proudly displayed a very beautiful pair of breasts that caused an immediate reaction on his body. “Holy fuck” he thought as he said “hey, how ya doin thought you were going to just drive on by.” He was smiling as he spoke to her, he couldn’t help it, even if he had just had a root canal he’d be doing the same thing albeit with chipmunk cheeks, and the words he had just spoke would have came out like this: “ray, throw your doing taught youth wrr juth doing to dwith by”. But he didn’t just have a root canal he had just had a few beers. That was six years ago. On a Friday evening. Somewhere around six thirty or so. Six forty-one. And seventeen seconds. P.M.

Jerry Wick and Jenny Mae: Mudhoney part one.

October 7, 2015

Mudhoney part one.

 

High Street in the mid to late 1980’s probably resembled most college town strips, rows and rows of bars serving pitchers or even plastic buckets of beer, beers for a quarter, tacky named drinks like “Sex on the Beach”, “Flaming Dr. Pepper”, $.50 shots of bubblegum flavored schnapps and Jell-O shots because who wouldn’t want to have a nice slimy sickly sweet mound of rubberized alcohol with luc-warm keg beer in a plastic cup? As the moon settled over the brightly lit destination, it would become overflowing with every type of stereotype of American, as young tie-dyed women with long flowing hair bounced off the curbs, twirling Eddi Brickell curly long hair into the night, vying for their attention were thick-necked and thicker-skulled frat boys arms bulging from weight sets next to dorm refrigerators fueled by twelve-packs of Old Milwaukee, they were here to score pussy damnit!, trying to be innocuous were the punks and burgeoning Goths, silently blending into the fabric of the concrete street with darkened mascara eyes, fishnet stockings and towering mohawks, and on the further outskirts were the other misfits, the soon to be called Gen-Xerox indie-rockers, we with jeans and rock concert tee-shirts, clothing picked fresh from the plentiful thrift stores, where the 1950’s and 60’s were not so long in passing. There would be rows and rows of shiny button up shirts for men, pill-box hats for women and even rows of formal dresses that would make Jackie Onassis proud. Bars after bars vied for all of this attention, with the vast majority catering to the white middle-class students, there was one bar on the strip that catered to the African-American students and of course, Crazy Mama’s that was the cauldron of Goth-punk-indie STD stew, where punk rock guys really did go out with new wave girls.

College radio was the invisible string the tied the huddled pockets of punks, new-wavers and the black mascara crowd together across campuses around the country. Meager, tiny sounds emanating from silver metal radio towers, perching high on libraries, gymnasiums and English buildings provided small budding scenes with a fuel and energy that encouraged the sharing of music, ideas and romance. Major labels would devote entire departments to market records to this small crowd of passionate fans, although none of them appeared to care to much to bringing many of these bands to a wider audience as mainstream radio was rife with payola and the white-bread sounds of Phil Collins, Lionel Richie, Hall and Oates and on the hard-rock stations, it was Def Leppard, RATT and genteel versions of ZZ Top and Van Halen (i.e. “Velcro Fly” and “Jump.”) It wasn’t until the overwhelming success of R.E.M. that was built town by town, show by show, record by record over seven years that the major labels decided to spend a bit more even then the popularity of “college” rock was relegated to university campuses, record stores and the midnight 120 minutes show on MTV. Unknown at the time was the importance of struggling but essential gateways to this music, which was the independent record label. It would be difficult to think of music today without the heavy stone foundation laid by bands such as Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, the Replacements, Scrawl, Husker Du and the Bad Brains, all of which sprung from the indie-label scene.

It was upon this stage that many of us sowed our oats, filling our young pockets with the vibrant echoes of music that could transform a day of idleness to one of pure creative output, with fingers clutching onto the cardboard sleeve of our favorite record at the moment, transportation came the moment the needle struck the grooves. The secret handshakes were the concert tee-shirts we wore, the rolled up fanzines we stuck in our back pockets and the glee of live music, as the notes invaded our ears, we caromed off one another, bouncing to and fro from the bars, dance floors and into our beds. The smell of sweat, alcohol and sex pressed against our faces and loins the next morning, it was a far world from stuffy and the conservative communities many of us had sprung from.

Drinking was as present as air, a bottle clutched in my hand as sure as I wanted a hand to hold onto my heart, it was the next best thing–a solid glass method of fending off loneliness while at the same time energizing everything I did, a record simply sounded better with a drink and a woman was easier to humor with a wry smile and a the floating bubbles of beer. Talent is a young person’s urge, stepping out of adolescence, kicking off the insecurities of early and awkward sexual experiences, leaving behind pimples, oily skin and bodies that were never quite what one wanted–I stalked away from my teenage years with no regrets and an acute sense of relief all the while finding out that my passion play with music, painting, and writing. A body couldn’t walk down High Street without bumping into someone who was busy recording, making and breathing art, wearing the passion the burned inside fully on the outside, carrying canvases, guitar cases, bundles of notebooks, and knapsacks stuffed with methods of creating and collecting thoughts, ideas that were day-glow in nature, screaming from clothing, hair and even the make-up we wore.

Pacing my walk, counting my steps while I read the paper in one hand, a bulky Sony Walkman in the other, it was a minor miracle I never knocked anybody’s teeth out nothing could hold my attention. Music helped focusing, notes to lead the way as I shuffled through life, barely lifting clumsy feet through days filled with the afterthoughts of nights that never turned off, even now they are like streets lights made of wax paper, filtering into nothingness, pulling around the edges as if roasted in an oven. My walks were the same, from whatever apartment/house I lived in to the store, then to Larry’s, to Bernie’s, the corner carryout near 15th, Buckeye Donuts and then to Staches. Repeat, sleep, repeat. There were some weeks when I never drove, there wasn’t a need, opening the car door, a small blast of stale hot air would billow out and engulf me, wavering from the slight stench, plopping in the front seat making sure the correct tape was in the player, turning the key and the sweaty vessel was transformed into an instant feeling machine, never mind the dry air, the empty beer bottles on the backseat floor or the scrunched up McDonalds bag on the passenger side. Nodding to myself as “Flat out Fucked” blared into the late morning sun, the car was another home, a clubhouse of my own.

Slipping from my corporate record store job everyday day around three, with my best rumpled dress shirt, brownish off the rack pleated pants and a bulky name tag stuck to my chest I would venture to Used Kids, and soon after Dan and Ron would offer me a Black Label, and feeling like one of the crowd I was soon talking records with them. Gerald Moss, worked there, par laying his own passion for music to rise up in the Koch Distribution corporation, he and I would discuss Phil Ochs, Richard Thompson and classical music. A full-blown passion for records had exploded when I got to High Street, living in small town Ohio, record stores consisted of the clean lines of chain stores, where posters and cassette tapes lined the walls. Getting underground music was a chore, where as a fifteen year old I would peruse the racks and buy records depending on their labels or even by their album covers. It was as if a fat man walked into an ice cream shop that sold more than vanilla or chocolate, I didn’t want to leave and I wanted to try everything. The dollar bins were bulky, stuffed with an assortment of titles, based not just on the redundancy of previous year’s sales (Bad Company, Peter Frampton, Heart, easy listening) but also by condition or cut-out bin titles, one could easily find semi-beat Replacements, Soul Asylum, Breaking Circus, or Salem 66 records in the cut-out bin, I bought my first Guided By Voices record, “Self-Arial Nostalgia” record for a $1, sealed. The music that the Ron and Dan played was always good, making an impression on ears that gobbled up music like the desert does rain. Sucking the notes out of air, an appetite for melody that was as much as an addiction as the alcohol I was consuming at daily and afternoon intervals.

Summer was bleeding Ohio dry in the summer of 1988, the pavement was so hot that the soles of tennis shoes stuck to the sidewalk, waves of heat shuddered in the thick air and if one did not have the luxury of an air conditioner, nights were spent with a fan blasting away on naked sweaty bodies, cooking on top of damp sheets. Discount Records, since it was a corporate store, complete with carpet that was replaced every few years had air conditioning, but we also couldn’t play a lot of the music I wanted to. The manager didn’t approve, we played mostly jazz, classical and non-offensive pop music such as Tracy Chapman, James Taylor, and soft R&B, when he agreed to play 10,000 Maniacs or the Rolling Stones he was being adventurous but for me, it was better than working at Sears, United Dairy Farmers or lawn-work. Used Kids had no air conditioner, the best way to cool off was to grab a beer from one of the always laughing men, and hope that it wasn’t too crowded, propping open the door the store felt damp, sticky and with the scent of sweaty men and hippie oils in the air, I would thumb through the records. Suddenly Ron put on a single, eyeing him from the corner of the dollar bin, he held a bottle to his mouth, nodded and smiled as he put the bottle on the counter, his left hand wheeling the volume knob, the sound came blurting out of the speaker above my head, a fat-squishy and ragged blast of noise that asserted itself as not just new but primordial in the best sense of the word and the singer’s voice cackled out as if where a comic-book burp, “blarrghhhhh!!!!” and when the chorus hit, something had transformed me, the sloppy and crusty sound, bellowed out like an lion, albeit a drunken, soiled and rabid lion, but a lion nevertheless.

“Touch Me I’m Sick” was the first single by Mudhoney a soiled diamond of a song that for many of us, changed everything. It was one of the few songs that I remember where I was the first time I heard it, along with “Everything Flows” by Teenage Fanclub and “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, but it was another revelation that music was ugly, beautiful and comical all at the same time. Lyrically it was brilliant, nobody was singing songs like this—at least to my young 20 year old ears—a stab against the clean bullshit of hair rock, the pastel sounds of Whitney Houston and Huey Lewis, the soft-light videos of dancing candles that framed the clean cut faces of Phil Collins, the Police and that ilk.

There are moments in life where perspective switches, an inner shift where the world changes, for some it maybe discarding matchbox cars, putting the doll in a box, or taking a last drink of alcohol. At other times, the shift is subtle, a slow movement, wading into the ocean as the waves crawl up around chilly thighs, small pushes against a body not quite ready to change—these changes happen in slow motion. Punk rock hit me like my first orgasm, it made total sense and a part of me asked myself, “why didn’t I know about this before?” The world changed, there was no longer a hierarchy to art, no longer a manner in which someone had to dress a certain way or for music to be used to sell anything other than pure emotional, either frustration, anger, joy or confessional sloppy love (sex).

At one point around this time, I started going out with Sharon, her quiet mysterious manners, her steely beauty and the fact that she was as big of a fan of loud guitars and spitting, sputtering, saliva spewing vocals only helped to make an up-to-that-time world a bit more clear. Sharon, who had lived with J Mascis, hung out with Sonic Youth and lived in Alphabet City, had eyes for me and the punk-outcast-arrogant me felt a “I fuckin-told-you-so” to the small town Ohio, that I had thrown off my shoulders just a few years prior. Sharon went to art school in NYC, although she was from Columbus she too, had shed her own upbringing and made herself anew-the person she was. Astute, coy and with a wise eye for detail, Sharon loved fashion, at one point we argued about the idea that I had a great sense of fashion, which I found absurd as I usually wore tee-shirts, jeans and thrift store button-ups. Many of the latter were from the 60’s and early 70’s as those decades were not so much in the distant past, were now, as I stand on the verge of 50, those decades appear to be faint wisps of smoke disenagrating in my mind. Fa-la-la-man. Sharon took me to Barney’s and other stores that would bludgeon my eyes with their price tags. Later when I met my wife, herself fashionably acute, and also an artist I gleaned some idea of fashion and style although it was more about how these lovers had used them. My style was comfort and easiness, and the idea of punk while married to fashion was more about being creative, of being confident to make and live life as you could carve it out, perhaps by plucking a guitar or bass, transforming a body that was at one time abused into a walking, breathing canvass or painting your hair purple, or green or cutting off the entire fucking mop.

Mudhoney contacted Jerry one day, asking Gaunt to open up a few shows for them, Steve Turner was/is one of the most passionate music fanatics I have ever met, and he had heard Gaunt and loved them, soon he convinced the rest of the band to allow Gaunt to play some shows with them. Another by-product of this wonderful indie-world was constructed around the idea of creative and no hierarchy it was common for well known bands to pick and choose local bands to open for them or to tour, Pavement had the Ass Ponys open for them several times in Ohio, Superchunk toured with Gaunt a few times, Billy Childish asked the New Bomb Turks to play with him in Columbus and the list goes on. The only requirement I needed to go to a show was to be loaded, which was a pretty easy task.

I drove with Gaunt to Bogart’s in Cincinnati, it was on the edge of the University of Cincinnati and the Over-the-Rhine, a mixed neighborhood that had been kicking and screaming into the idea of gentrification. It was a hotspot for racial tensions, poverty and drug use—and it was not uncommon to read about police shootings and high crime. We drove a small mini-van, Jerry, Brett Lewis and I drinking the entire way, it was as if we were ten year olds driving to Kings Island Amusement Park instead of our twenty-something selves on our way to a punk-rock show. Jerry was loose, cracking jokes and bahawing all the way on the 100 mile car ride, we giggled uncontrollably and right before we got there Jerry got his serious face on, one where he felt the need to wear the weight of the free-world on his shoulders, pumping cigarette after cigarette into his lips he would suck one up and start another. Brett said, “relax Jerry, we’ll have a good show.” Nodding Jerry stammered, “I am fucking relaxed dude!” Eyeing one another, Brett and I laughed again.

ps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=02Uuufjw9qY

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/04/shopping-malls-1989_n_6269304.html

this is pretty great:

 

Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae: Pokemon

April 12, 2015

Pokemon:

His hair is a soft blonde, shaggy-it is starting to hang in his eyes, long curls twisting just above his sea blue eyes, and the room brightens when he smiles, giggles worth a lifetime of pleasure. Bouncing up to me a few weeks ago, “Daddy, can I have Pokémon cards?!” Sighing deeply, “Pokémon? They still make them?” Bruno shoves a muddied yellowed card in my face, “yeah, look—I found this on the playground. My friends play it, they are really cool. See dad?” and he shoves the bent card, complete with little kid footprint in my face. He grins, and somewhere a chunk of the universe’s ceiling becomes unhinged. “Sure, we can get you Pokémon cards.” He thrusts his hands up high in the sky, as if he just scored a World Cup goal, “YES!!! Pokémon!!!”

Growing up in the 1970’s was almost surreal as I look at faded blurred photos, it can as if even the memories are as bleached out as the pictures of a young me, wearing a long-sleeve yellow turtle neck, looking crookedly at the camera, a mischievous smile (the same that my Bruno holds the world captive with) anchored towards my brother who is laughing as the camera clicks. Behind us a hazy Christmas tree stands, a prop for our childhood and my father wearing black plastic framed glasses, a moustache and his arm around my mother, her long red hair reaching just below her shoulders. She eyes him nervously, no doubt wondering just how soon she can jettison herself from his madness. I collected comic books with my brother, my step-father David had let us read his, a large collection of early to late sixties Marvel titles, that no doubt would pay for my kids college education if we still had them. Early “Spider Man”, a nice run from the early twenties to the late 90’s, “The Incredible Hulk” most the early ones from #102 onward, “Fantastic Four, “Sub-Mariner”, “Thor” and “Silver Surfer.” We kept them in a small cardboard box, David was very kind and patience with us and we were told not to let them leave our rooms, be careful how we handled them and he would later buy us comics. This was 1975/76, a rough period in our lives, lots of movement both in the relationships my mother was involved in and geographically. From 1973 to 1976, we moved five times, after divorcing my father my mother moved us to an apartment in Athens, soon she married David and we moved to Youngstown where he got a job working in a steel-mill, not the quite the job a future PhD. professor at MIT had envisioned for himself. Soon though, David procured a job in Springs, New York where he worked as a scientist near Montauk–we lived just a skip from the ocean. From New York we moved to Newport News, Virginia and in Newport News we moved a few times.        The commotion of moving was difficult to say the least especially for my older brother, who had a difficult time adjusting, we relied on each other. With our plastic green army men, Lincoln Logs, and especially comic books. We dug in deep with them, losing ourselves in the adventures of Peter Parker, who always seemed to doubt himself and for me, the Hulk as misunderstood anti-hero whom I identified with at that early age. Completely bewildered, Bruce Banner yearned for acceptance yet, because of his emotions and the state of the world, he could not. This was me, even as an eight year old.

Coming home, I was latch-key before there was a latch key from second grade onwards, if the sun wasn’t shining I would get a plate of cookies and a tall glass of Kool-Aid and head to my room. Pulling the box from the closet, sitting in front of the closet door–not even making it to the bed, sprawling out I would read the comics over and over. The slightly mildewed smell of the pages, a bit musty even the ink had its own smell. This was comfort. After moving to Athens with my father and my brother at the end of the 3rd grade, my brother started coming home with other comics with the same vintage as the ones we had in Virginia. He and Mark Schazenbach, would come home and lay them out, teasing me by locking me out of his room while they read the comic books. Eventually, the lead me to Haffa’s, a literally underground store in Athens that not only sold comics from $1 on up, but also just as importantly sold records. Soon, I would make Haffa’s my destination point, hanging out – and saving my weekly quarter allowance to buy both records and comics. Soon though, the competition for our affections increased as we discovered football and baseball cards, they were cheaper than comics and we bought and traded these constantly. This was the hey-day of rough and tumble football our favorite teams were the Pittsburgh Steelers and Minnesota Vikings, and soon we would have multiple cards of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swan, Fran Tarkington, Sammie White and Chuck Foreman. Taping them to our desk tops and carrying them in our back pockets, with nary a care that someday, people would collect these cards, handle them with gloves and diapering them in small plastic sleeves. This past summer, my brother stopped by my house on his way to Alabama and we finally divvied up the cards, passing them down to our own sons. Oddly, Bruno has no care for football as he has never played the game nor has he watched one on television, so the cards still sit in a box.

During my fourth grade year, “Star Wars” came out and soon the world was transformed especially for a ten year old. My mother would not allow us to see Star Wars as it was PG, but I was able to watch the movie by buying and trading Star Wars cards, soon stacks appeared all over the house. They came out in colored series, blue, then red and finally yellow, if you flipped them over and connected them it made a giant poster. Finally towards the end of the summer, my father took my brother and I to see it. The next summer, Jaws II & Battlestar Gallectica came out, and soon there were more stacks of cards cluttering the already cluttered house. Clutter upon clutter. A cluttering mess. All the while, we still bought comic books, but soon as I entered fifth and sixth grade my interest was more laser-sharp on music, all I wanted was records and soon I was hanging out after-school at Side-One Records which was above Haffa’s, on a daily basis.

The nineteen seventies was now coming to a close, the decade was birthed with bell-bottom pants, the blossoming of soft-rock, tinged with the optimism of the baby-boomer coming into their own, just below the surface though the snarling cauldron of greed, cynicism and the darkness of Nixon, Vietnam and racism boiled. For the most part, the children of the 70’s were protected by the innocence of PBS television: Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Mr. Rogers, then Saturday Morning Cartoons and whimsical movies starring a talking Volkswagen Beetle, or small dogs and as the decade wound down, the story of a coming of age man saving the universe with the help of a princess and smuggler. In small town Athens, before milk-carton kids and the immediate fear mongering of the internet, we chased each other around the neighborhood, our weapons of choice were nerf footballs, wiffle ball and vicious games of kick-the-can. Nobody locked their front doors, while parents only saw their offspring at dinner time. Cable television barely existed, late night Friday and Saturday nights were crammed with Double Chiller Theater’s or Fritz the Night Owl, my brother and I would make a fort of blankets and shovel sugar cereal into gaping mouths as Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price cracked open our minds with sinister cackles and tales of murder. Music had changed dramatically from those early feel-good am radio days of the early seventies to the closing racket of punk rock. The Boss Guitars, a pub-y rock garage band formed by Ohio University students played my eighth grade dance, they not only played originals but also covers and it was here that I witnessed the seed of punk rock in a live setting. Sporting slicked back hair, wore leather jackets, torn jeans and mutton-chops, they played the Clash as well as sixties soul, a small pit of stinky adolescence boys careened off each other while the band smiled at one another. John Denver and David Gates were miles away. Later members of band would form Cleveland’s Bongo’s Jungle Party, and write an ode to Prisonshake’s Doug Enkler, there is no way these men, who seemed so old to me then, would have an inkling the impact they would have on a smallish curly brown haired boy with crooked teeth and an imagination that could muster an entire world out of clods of dirt and a plastic water pistol

During that same time period, a new way of playing games began to gain traction, gone were the luck of the dice roles of Risk and Monopoly, and new way to play had infiltrated the minds of awkward young men around the county. “Dungeon’s and Dragons” invaded Athens Middle School in a swarm, transforming the be speckled kids of University staff from brainy analytical kids who sat passively on the sidelines of the gravel encrusted playground into Necromancers, wizards and battling elves with the role of multi-sided dice and stacks of hardcover books whose artwork appeared to be drawn by an 8th grader sitting in Geometry class. Soon D&D took over, even some of the jocks were playing but it was mostly played by a small group of us, I played with my best friend Eric and a few other kids, during lunch and over the weekends where we would settle into a spare study room at the University library. The entire day would float by as we battled our way through orcs, disgruntled kings and heaven forbid a snarling smoking dragon. My mother was poor, at the time we lived in cramped University housing, four of us pinched into a small two bedroom apartment on Mill Street. My sister slept on the couch or with my mother, my brother and I had metallic bunk-beds that was cold to the touch, only slightly more freezing in the winter months than the brown speckled linoleum floors; I couldn’t afford any of the books but in between drawing pictures of Cheap Trick, Rush record covers and action shots of Lynn Swann or Chuck Foreman I would draw the plans for a castle that our band of made-up warriors would investigate the coming weekend. This infatuation lasted two years, by the end of my eighth grade year, hormones had taken over as well as a growing desire to read as much as I possibly could all the while saving whatever coins and I could slap together to buy dollar records at Haffa’s. The wanting to lose myself in the imaginary world of dice had faded against the fantasy of unhooking lacey brassieres, guitars and in the printed word of Michael Moorcock, JRR Tolkien, and soon, Kurt Vonnegut and outrageous musical biographies with names like “No One Here Gets Out Alive”, “Up and Down with the Rolling Stones”” and “Hammer of the Gods.” Video games consisted of Pong or Tank, and while the early Atari systems came out, the covers of those early games were much more imaginative than the blocky, cumbersome graphics–there was no bother in playing these games as they looked nothing like the games in the arcade. By the time Nintendo came out, I was seventeen, getting blowjobs, sneaking into bars and seeing some of my favorite bands such as R.E.M., The Replacements and Lou Reed—I had no time for television games. At some point during this time period as many of us found our footing amid our later high school years, getting lost in the musical underground of the time, though the sharing of fanzines, college radio and of course, the center of the collective universe of music fans everywhere, the local record store, a new generation that was being raised on the much improved computer graphics of Nintendo tended to stay indoors and made the jump from video games into the expanding world of cards played with gaming cards. Magic and Pokémon spread their wings, while at the same time relegating Dungeon and Dragon’s to an afterthought, the teenagers who had spent countless hours rolling dice and pleading with an often-cruel and power-hungry dungeon master had now become adults. We were off to college, or jobs or yet into other subterranean worlds filled with like minded outcasts, shaking our collective asses to the spinning sounds of black vinyl records and holding the backside of the be-speckled blond haired girl who manned the counter at Kinko’s while screaming along with the Jad Fair, Steve Malkmous, Marcy Mays or the Lazy Cowgirls was much more fun than pretending you were a 16th level Neurotic Ranger. The pleasure was now fucking a real neurotic person, than being an imaginary one with a cape, sword, amulet or pouch with secret potions.

Several years ago I took my kids to the Laughing Ogre, the large comic book shop in Columbus, just up the road from our house. I had not been in comic book shop since buying Hate!, Cherry Pop-Tart and Eightball at Monkey’s Retreat the essential underground bookstore that operated next to Staches for nearly twenty years. Monkey’s not only sold comics but also adult magazines, underground publications like ReSearch, Forced Exposure and lots of paperbacks, it was one of those places that attracted not only the underside of High Street but also the certain type of person who has no problem crouching down on bended knees, rifling through dusty and musty old boxes for hours at a time, the sort of place which required a shower upon getting home. These stores were akin to flea markets or antique stores except the pursuits was intellectual curiosity, some brief present or future titillation, and perhaps the greatest motivator of all, escape. For many along High Street, Monkey’s Retreat was the person’s first introduction to Charles Bukowski, Robert Crumb, Lydia Lunch or the fascinating black and white photos of S&M, latex or homosexual literature. These were things that were not easily found in the local Little Professor bookstore. Laughing Ogre is a different sort of store, family and kid friendly with clean shelves, pristine book spines, large open tables to display the imaginative world of graphic novels and comic books. The days of sitting on a mucky floor, getting red eyes and blackened hands looking for the one Spider-Man comic that is has interrupted a run for twenty-seven in a row has disappeared as the underground has turned itself inside out-now my daughters favorite show is Comic Book Men, a reality show starring Kevin Smith and his side-kick staff who gently insult one another and customers, for many of us this was the sort of life we had lived for year, albeit not the shiny clean version on television.

The comic book shop is a destination for us, especially for my daughter who has an active imagination, relishes good story telling and can lose herself in a book for hours. She has met famous graphic novelists and I encourage her to ask questions, read as much as she can and to express herself as much as she can. Standing in the middle of life stepping forward while glancing back is a bizarre excursion, as the past can be brittle, cracked around the edges with the rush of minutes, hours, days weeks and years pouring over tangible memories that appear so real they can bring a gulp in the throat or a hearty chuckle, but in the end they are nothing—simple thoughts dissipating into the next moment, all the while I see the future for my children the wonderment they have, sudden rushes of emotions at the simple acts of holding a book, staring at Luke Skywalker with a light-saber in hand, overcome by the special effects that are cemented in my own head, the sound of a song transforms them, still as it transforms me.

“Daddy, when can we get Pokémon cards?” Bruno asks, as he leaps from one couch to another, curls flopping, arms swinging while the stereo blasts Superchunk’s “Crossed Wires.”

“We can go today, after soccer and guitar practice, I’m sure the Laughing Ogre             has some.”

“Saskia, daddy said we could get Pokémon cards!!”

“Bruno, I don’t care about Pokémon, daddy can I get a new book–Raina Telgemeier has a new book,” replies Saskia dancing on the table, her slim body twisting and contorting, she appears to be having a seizure when she dances, she is that clumsy.

After guitar lesson we drive to the Laughing Ogre, the sun has managed to splash through the dullish Ohio sky, a veritable sidewalk of gray and bleakness that has tortured millions through the years, outside the traffic is bottled up as people try to escape into the sun, our neighborhood is filled with coffee shops, craft stores and restaurants. Bruno is jabbering non-stop, he spits out words as fast as a auctioneer, completely focused on one subject: Pokémon. The shop is filled with other families and their children, books and graphic novels are displayed on clean even shelves, the comic books are stacked side-by-side along the walls, glossy covers, signs announcing new releases. There are grown men and woman holding stacks of new comics in their hands, children bustle about and Saskia heads towards the Archie comics and grabs a copy of “Sisters”. Bruno sighs deeply, pulls on my shirt, “daaaad, ask about Pokémon!” “Do you want a comic book buddy?” He enjoys Popeye and Peanuts but has no interest today.

A small wisp of a woman sits behind the counter, she has a nose rings, a thin brown tee-shirt and a collection of silver brackets that rattle around her left wrist. She also self publishes her own comics, small press real-life sketches of the mundane and slow moving actions of the day, she smiles at us, “can I help you?” Bruno, fingers gripping the counter, “do you have Pokémon?!”

“yes, we have some Pokémon Manga’s over on the wall.”

“I’m sorry, he wants Pokémon cards, not the books.”

“Oh….I see….well, we don’t sell those” her voice now reduced a whisper, “I think the Soldiery in the back of the building has those, but I don’t know, I’ve never been in there.” Her nose wrinkles a bit, her eyes grow big, suddenly I get the feeling that I’m involved in a drug deal. “Oh, is that the gaming store?” I ask. “Yeah, I think they should have what you are looking for but, like I said I’ve never been there.”

Bruno, eyes exploding, as if they were replaced with resplendent blue crystal bowling balls, “can we go?!!” As I pay for Saskia’s book, the clerk winks and says, “good luck.”

Exiting we walk towards the back of the building, the entrance to the gaming store is basically off an alley, an almost dweebish speakeasy, against the brick wall outside the store we shuffle past a rouges gallery of misfits and techie types, one man is stuffing an oversized submarine sandwich into his mouth, his black tee-shirt with a bleached out image of a space-invader icon barely containing his girth, his beard filled with crumbs and droplets of mayonnaise, there are a few men holding tightly onto two-liter bottles of soda and tall energy drinks. Entering the store, the smell of awkwardness is palatable, with tables upon table of gamers, ranging in age from high school far into adult hood, the oil of acne pervades the air. I feel out of sorts. Saskia looks at me, and I return her smile, the walls are covered with fantasy posters and shelves are stacked high with role-playing, war, and fantasy games. One the counter is a stand of multi-sided dice, bringing back memories of D&D and my own long weekend afternoons stretched out as I battled made up dragons and evil forces in the library at Ohio University. We take a small walk around the shop, mostly the clientele are boys and men, layers of cards cover the tables, some of the players also appears to be playing video games while playing these other games. Games within games. I show Saskia a row of games she may like, there is a small section of historical games, the one I show her takes place in Victorian England, she looks at it, “I can ask my teacher at the gaming club if he comes here.” She is enjoying looking around, Bruno is transfixed, and we make our way to the counter.

Bruno, shy to a fault, his hands on my backside, sticking his fingers in my back pockets, he is suddenly my living shadow. Two young women are at the counter, timid and self-conscious, no doubt they would feel more comfortable if the counter was a drive through, “hey, do you have Pokémon cards?” I motion to Bruno, “he is really interested in Pokémon and he doesn’t have any.” The blonde girl, with brown framed glasses, small splotches of acne climbing her cheeks, quivers her lip, “ummm, you want Pokémon cards?” “Yeah, do you have those?” Biting her top lip, fiddles her fingers, “oh….do you know what kind you want?” I look at Bruno, “hey buddy, what kind do you want?” “daddy, I want Pokémon cards” speaks the shadow behind me. “He wants Pokémon.” She glances to her co-worker, her eyes shifting sideways, “hhmmmm, we have all kinds of Pokémon cards. Which ones do you want?” My mind throws up a little and quickly swallows it, “see, he’s never played before so I suppose the basic cards? Are there beginning cards?” The poor girl appears to faint inside, sighing, she explains, “here, we have these, there are all kinds” She places a small display box of shiny cards with bright colors and fanciful Japanese cartoon characters on it, “this is the newest series.” Bruno thumbs through them, pulls a pack out and we choose two. “Are there directions to these?” I ask and my questions goes unanswered, behind us, gamers are queuing up to purchase their own cards and candy bars. We pay and leave.

This becomes a weekly pattern, Bruno can’t read that well yet but he looks at the cards, carries them and talks about them incessantly. People move clumsily through life, protecting oneself from the world at large, building identities brick by brick, layers upon layers of ideas, wearing passions on tee-shirts, pins, decals, tattoos, music and even magical games played on thin cardboard cards. We bump in our own fragilities on a daily basis, for some even ordering a cup of coffee brings on brief seconds of anxiety, the internal mechanism of calm has never been calibrated correctly, at other times we joke through the waiting of the hours trying to find relief for our inner shakiness by making the world around us laugh. We escape, through fantasy, losing touch with the present through digital and imaginary avatars, standing alone is a frightening experience. Many years ago in a former life I was known for my propensity to drink, the logo of Anyway was “buy me a beer” and at one time, while I was on an episode of Al Franken’s Air America, somebody had written in on the feed, “hey, I only know one Bela in Columbus, and that has to be in” and later in the thread someone wrote, “if it was that Bela he was probably drunk.” That was my identify, I created it, through looking for something to help with whatever unease I had, it was created drink by drink, through years of practice until finally the disquiet within me had eaten me from the inside out. While I am closer to the terms of this lonely echo in my guts, I laugh continuously, making disparaging remarks about myself to melt the inner friction of others, and at the end of the day, I still rely on music to calm the white tipped waves of thought that never seem to settle. Hoping my kids find the same relief.

 

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vL22CIEWJgc

http://www.amctv.com/shows/comic-book-men

http://www.truelifecomix.com/

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vy9A2PSjVxc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3pCgxowNN4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BaC0sXzH9o8

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4dD9_9giZm4

Jerry Wick & Jenny Mae: Christmas 1991

December 24, 2014

Christmas Trees. 1989.

The bedroom was positioned over the backyard, supported by long planks of peeling wood with widows on all four walls. It was freezing in the winter and because it hung close in the tree branches, remained relatively cool in the summer. The room itself defied all building codes as it was obviously a balcony during its glory days and then one afternoon a greedy but innovative landlord secured walls and, adding windows, carpet and several coats of paint then-presto an instant extra bedroom. The landlord didn’t even bother to run electrical in the new bedroom, as we opened up the original window and fed an orange extension cord through the window and kept a small end table on the other side of the window that housed an aqua-green rotary phone that was rescued from my grandfather’s office. We picked through his belongings, as if we were excavating an anthropological site, carting off the phone, pictures, and for me a wide array of men’s nightgowns (just like Scrooge) shortly after he was shuttled to his final bedroom, the Whetstone Garden and Care Center which sounded more like a nursery than a center that sucked the shit and urine out of bedridden patients wobbling on their last breaths. Over the door hung a large poster of Morrissey, left over from previous tenants, it was a black and white photo of the singer’s face, he was looking forlornly over his shoulders and the photo itself could have been torn from the pages of Life magazine circa 1957 not from the bleached big hair, and torn jeans of the late 80’s. One night, in a burst of anger over infidelities, I smashed my drunken arms through the poster, withdrawing my left arm from the tattered poster and hunk of glass submerged deep into the back of my forearm, a cascade of blood pooling across the floor. Looking up, “well, that was stupid, Jenny get the car I gotta go to the hospital.” All scars have stories.

The July moon poked through the dark leaves, a soft wind blew through the open windows and a jazz record was playing, most likely Billie Holiday or Preservation Hall Jazz Band, as these were the favorites Jenny would play during the summer. The green phone rattled, “hello, oh hi grandma,” Jenny spoke into the receiver. “Now?” a pause and then, “But it’s July….no that sounds cool, we’ll be right over.” Tipping a can of Schaffer’s to my mouth, wiping my lip with my left hand, “what does grandma need?” Jenny was pulling on a yellow summer house dress that she seemed to wear daily, “oh, she wants us to come over and put up her Christmas tree.” At that time in our lives, nothing seemed out of sorts or to wild, “ok.”

Upon arrival my grandmother, with two canes and translucent blue eyes opened the door, “come in children, please. I am so happy to see you Geen-if-fer, Bela now go fix some drrrrinkss” her smiled widened, showing her perfect white teeth, her Hungarian accent was thick and she always had a knack of insulting me with every interaction. As I made my way to the kitchen feeling the comfort of her air conditioning as the summer heat in Ohio is as solid and sticky as tar-paper, I opened the refrigerator door. “Bela, you must wash your hands first, I know what you men do with your hands and its dis-gusting!” I hadn’t been in her house for three minutes and she was already making allusions to my propensity of masturbating.

Grandmother ordered a pizza from Pizzeria Uno, a large with everything and we had a few drinks and I went to pick it up, upon arriving back to her house both my grandmother and Jenny had made their way to the living room. There were several boxes of Christmas ornaments and upon entering the house and putting the pizza down I was instructed to go down to the basement and fetch the artificial Christmas tree. “Bela, it is under the stairs in de bazement, be careful, you are such a clumsy man and Pablo bought me that treeee, so be verrry careful. Don’t touch anything else vile you are down der.” A streak of paranoia has run through my family, the old woman was petrified that people were going through her belongings, taking note pads, pencils or even worse jewelry. She was a hoarder, with stacks of papers, egg cartons, small cut out pictures of animals, flowers and cartoon characters slipped between bills and letters, she coveted things as if she was in perpetual starvation for things. Anything. Her basement was stacked high with boxes, plastic laundry baskets bursting at the edges with more paper, photos and empty canisters of peanut jars, puffed cheese balls and fabric, unopened packages of sheets, tee-shirts and other clothing. To find anything was a chore and after three minutes the old woman would holler, “Bela, vat are you doing down der?!! Hurry up!” She was always thinking that I may be hiding things away for myself, while she never accused me of taking anything the thought that something may disappear was always present. It was not uncommon for her to call me after a maintenance man came to her house and have her think he took something from her, whether it be a bag of potato chips or a small elephant figurine. This paranoia was passed onto my father, whose bout with mental illness has left a chasm as wide as the expanding universe between himself and his children.

In the basement, there was luck to be found as the artificial tree was sitting right underneath the stairs, there was nothing else placed on top of it. My grandmother had a very difficult time going down the stairs at this point in her life, and while her memory was sharp, she could recall the precise location of her father’s cookbooks in the basement she would get anxious when she couldn’t see where a person was. Pablo had bought the tree in the year before, a thrifty man he would peruse catalogs and discount stores for the best deals and then purchase things in bulk. He had bought four of these trees the previous spring, two for him, one for my grandmother and another for a friend in Miami. We set the tree up, pushing her warped dining room table, that she bought at a fraction of the cost at Lazarus because well, you know, it was warped.

With boxes upon boxes of Christmas ornaments, many of them carried within the confines of a bruised and dented leather crate that help everything my grandparents owned. Traveling by foot, truck and train from Budapest, to Lake Balaton, into the mountains of Austria, then lugged onto a freighter chugging across the Atlantic to Caracas. Later, they would be packed again in boxes, carefully wrapped and folded into pink and white tissue paper, to be transported by bus, train and finally the trunk of my father’s car from Caracas to Columbus. These were the precious ones, the ones my grandmother would hold in her hand as if they were made of baby skin, softly eyeing them, her wide blue eyes sparkling as the candles and lights of the room shifted and shimmied off the golds, reds and silver of the ancient ornaments. She would hold them up to the light and smile to herself, they were treasures for her and as I eyed her removing them from these dimpled boxes, I understood why she wanted her Christmas tree hung up in July. The putting up of the tree took several weeks, all of the decorating done on a Thursday night after I got off of work, she would buy the pizza, I would wash my hands, make the rum and cokes and we would commence to decorating. Grandmother would sit in her plush E-Z-Boy recliner and bark out orders to me on where to place specific ornaments, she had what appeared to be thousands. Almost all of them laced and tied with green or brown thread that she had tied, so they all hung at the same length. Some branches would be holding up to ten ornaments, all stacked in a row: a drummer boy, a plastic cat, a snowman, a wooden cross, a plastic candy-cane, a fabric Santa, a miniature race car, a tiny hippopotamus and a toy soldier. These Christmas trinkets were ready for battle. In her perch, the old woman was in total control, and Jenny sat next to her talking about plants, food and gossiping all the while pointing her finger at a branch of the tree and having me hang one of these billions of tiny plastic ornaments, which, let’s face for the most part WERE NOT ornaments but tied junk that she called an ornament in certain places and when I failed to do so her dis-satisfaction would hurdle down upon me. “Beeeelaa, how can you be soo stooopid?! Look, my finger, put that little green Santa on dat branch, NOOO!!!! Not dat one, DAT one!!” Her chubby finger wagging in the air and turning to Jenny, “Genn-i-fer, how could you love such a stoopid man? Ok, yes that is ver you put it, very good Bela. You know in Hungary, we celebrated Christmas in the right way, it was none of the dumb tings you have here.”

Flashing back, I remembered sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, we were playing Monopoly. Well, my sister, my brother and my grandmother were, little Bela was too young, placing all the hotels in a row on the table, driving the silver car to each of them, “brrurrriggrrrrrr, brrrecggghh, hey we are here for Christmas” my little voice would go to each hotel. “Stop it Bela! God, you are annoying!”my sister would stammer, “Mom, Bela doesn’t know how to play and he thinks he does!” On the television, a Sonny and Cher Christmas was flickering in black and white, the red bird feeder outside the kitchen window glowed with an several inches of snow piled high and the backyard was windswept with snow, tiny lines carved by the wind mimicked the waves of the sea. Above her red shed almost collapsing from the mountain of snow, a lone lamp bathed the backyard in yellow light that could have been a beacon from heaven showering this Christmas Eve night for the birth of the baby Jesus. “I do too know how to play” I would whisper, puttering the car all over the table. There was eggnog, pastries, the smell of chicken paprikash, duck and onions filling the air and a curtain separated the kitchen from the living room, where the adults along with the help of the boy Jesus and a host of angels would be decorating the tree.

On the other side of the curtain, the booming sounds of Spanish, Hungarian and English split through the curtain like miniature bombs, popping into our ears and we heard the laughter that followed. Latin music was blaring and my uncles would periodically shuffle in, yelling over their shoulder, eyes laughing, cheeks red and bobbing their head to the sounds of Angel Cusodio Loyola and Oscar D’Leon whose clopping and shifting beats and melodies would make even the most stubborn hips sway to the pitter-patter of the percussion. “When is Jesus coming?” I would ask, “oh, soon, the angels are already here but children can’t look or they will leave and Jesus won’t come” Uncle Pablo would answer slyly as if the decorating of the Christmas tree was an x-rated adult burden. There were in fact many woman who helped set the tree up as both uncles were charming men who loved to have the company of pretty women by their sides. The idea that Jesus Christ would be in the next room terrified me, I wanted to see the angels but Jesus was scary, more so than Santa Claus and soon, as the anticipation of the next morning grew too great, I collapsed in my mother’s arms. She carried me through the curtain and into the guest room, where our stuffed animals were piled high on the floor and around the bed, protection from the ghosts that danced through the hallways of my grandparents house. I stole a peek over her shoulder, and saw my Aunt Bellin twirling her short white pleated skirt and caught a glimpse of her pink panties, I thought I saw an angel but dropped my head on my mother’s shoulder. The next morning, the tree appeared to be miles away as presents stacked high and far from the tree, they almost reached all four corners of the room. They did indeed come and it seemed like we opened presents for hours, and all the toys we opened had to stay at my grandmothers, we were not allowed to take any home. Which was a relief to our mother, who was certain we had no room for all the toys we were given.

My grandmother’s Christmas tree stood in her living room for nearly five years, until she finally decided to take it down as she worried she would fall into it as she got older, and after seven years she was carried out of her house by five paramedics and spent the last few years of her life in various homes. She always had a several ornaments up in her room.

 

a longer version of this story will be broadcast on Jon Solomon’s 24-hour Christmas show on WPRB: http://wprb.com/

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTjPEreVrmsIMG_5689 IMG_5688